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RT/ Inspired by the biomechanics of cheetahs, researchers build fastest soft robots yet

Robotics biweekly, 30th April — 14th May


Robotics market

The global market for robots is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 26 percent to reach just under 210 billion U.S. dollars by 2025. It is predicted that this market will hit the 100 billion U.S. dollar mark in 2020.

Size of the global market for industrial and non-industrial robots between 2018 and 2025(in billion U.S. dollars):

Size of the global market for industrial and non-industrial robots between 2018 and 2025(in billion U.S. dollars). Source: Statista

Research articles

Leveraging elastic instabilities for amplified performance: Spine-inspired high-speed and high-force soft robots

by Yichao Tang, Yinding Chi, Jiefeng Sun, Tzu-Hao Huang, Omid H. Maghsoudi, Andrew Spence, Jianguo Zhao, Hao Su and Jie Yin in Science Advances

Inspired by the biomechanics of cheetahs, researchers have developed a new type of soft robot that is capable of moving more quickly on solid surfaces or in the water than previous generations of soft robots. The new soft robotics is also capable of grabbing objects delicately — or with sufficient strength to lift heavy objects.

Soft machines typically exhibit slow locomotion speed and low manipulation strength because of intrinsic limitations of soft materials. Researchers present a generic design principle that harnesses mechanical instability for a variety of spine-inspired fast and strong soft machines. Unlike most current soft robots that are designed as inherently and unimodally stable, our design leverages tunable snap-through bistability to fully explore the ability of soft robots to rapidly store and release energy within tens of milliseconds. They demonstrate this generic design principle with three high-performance soft machines: High-speed cheetah-like galloping crawlers with locomotion speeds of 2.68 body length/s, high-speed underwater swimmers (0.78 body length/s), and tunable low-to-high-force soft grippers with over 1 to 103 stiffness modulation (maximum load capacity is 11.4 kg). The study establishes a new generic design paradigm of next-generation high-performance soft robots that are applicable for multifunctionality, different actuation methods, and materials at multiscales.

Spine-inspired bistable soft actuators

(A) Bioinspired by the active spine mechanism during cheetahs’ high-speed galloping, a bistable spine-based hybrid soft actuator is proposed to realize the similar spine flexion and extension through reversible snap-through bistability for design of high-speed locomotive soft robots. (B) Schematic design of a bistable hybrid soft bending actuator (BH-SBA). It consists of three components: two soft pneumatic two-way bending actuators as skeletal muscle, a three-dimensionally (3D) printed flexible mechanism composed of two rigid hinged links as a spine, and a pretensioned spring that connects two ends of the mechanism for potential mechanical energy storage and release. © Schematics of energy landscape of the bistable actuator, showing one peak (unstable state I) and two localized minimum energy states (stable states II and III). It provides two operating regimes: one is the bistable switch in path a, and the other is the monostable state in path b. Insets show the corresponding Ecoflex-based bistable actuator prototypes at each state. (D) Schematic illustration of the bistable working mechanism under both nonactuated (spring pretension release at resting states in i to iii) and actuated states (reversible snapping-through under pneumatic actuation in iii and iv). The inset shows the set of an angular stopper to constrain the maximum bending angle at the preset stopping angle of θs.

Self-Contained Neuromusculoskeletal Arm Prostheses

by Max Ortiz-Catalan, Ph.D., Enzo Mastinu, Ph.D., Paolo Sassu, M.D., Oskar Aszmann, M.D., and Rickard Brånemark, M.D., Ph.D. in New England Journal of Medicine

For the first time, people with arm amputations can experience sensations of touch in a mind-controlled arm prosthesis that they use in everyday life. A study reports on three Swedish patients who have lived, for several years, with this new technology — one of the world’s most integrated interfaces between human and machine.

Scientists report the use of a bone-anchored, self-contained robotic arm with both sensory and motor components over 3 to 7 years in four patients after transhumeral amputation. The implant allowed for bidirectional communication between a prosthetic hand and electrodes implanted in the nerves and muscles of the upper arm and was anchored to the humerus through osseointegration, the process in which bone cells attach to an artificial surface without formation of fibrous tissue. Use of the device did not require formal training and depended on the intuitive intent of the user to activate movement and sensory feedback from the prosthesis. Daily use resulted in increasing sensory acuity and effectiveness in work and other activities of daily life.

“Our study shows that a prosthetic hand, attached to the bone and controlled by electrodes implanted in nerves and muscles, can operate much more precisely than conventional prosthetic hands. We further improved the use of the prosthesis by integrating tactile sensory feedback that the patients use to mediate how hard to grab or squeeze an object. Over time, the ability of the patients to discern smaller changes in the intensity of sensations has improved,” says Max Ortiz Catalan.

“The most important contribution of this study was to demonstrate that this new type of prosthesis is a clinically viable replacement for a lost arm. No matter how sophisticated a neural interface becomes, it can only deliver real benefit to patients if the connection between the patient and the prosthesis is safe and reliable in the long term. Our results are the product of many years of work, and now we can finally present the first bionic arm prosthesis that can be reliably controlled using implanted electrodes, while also conveying sensations to the user in everyday life,” continues Max Ortiz Catalan.

Since receiving their prostheses, the patients have used them daily in all their professional and personal activities.

The new concept of a neuromusculoskeletal prosthesis is unique in that it delivers several different features which have not been presented together in any other prosthetic technology in the world:

It has a direct connection to a person’s nerves, muscles, and skeleton.

  • It is mind-controlled and delivers sensations that are perceived by the user as arising from the missing hand.
  • It is self-contained; all electronics needed are contained within the prosthesis, so patients do not need to carry additional equipment or batteries.
  • It is safe and stable in the long term; the technology has been used without interruption by patients during their everyday activities, without supervision from the researchers, and it is not restricted to confined or controlled environments.

Perovskite neural trees

by Hai-Tian Zhang, Tae Joon Park, […]Shriram Ramanathan in Nature Communications

A team of engineers has created hardware that can learn skills using a type of AI that currently runs on software platforms. Sharing intelligence features between hardware and software would offset the energy needed for using AI in more advanced applications such as self-driving cars or discovering drugs.

Trees are used by animals, humans and machines to classify information and make decisions. Natural tree structures displayed by synapses of the brain involves potentiation and depression capable of branching and is essential for survival and learning. Demonstration of such features in synthetic matter is challenging due to the need to host a complex energy landscape capable of learning, memory and electrical interrogation. Researchers report experimental realization of tree-like conductance states at room temperature in strongly correlated perovskite nickelates by modulating proton distribution under high speed electric pulses. This demonstration represents physical realization of ultrametric trees, a concept from number theory applied to the study of spin glasses in physics that inspired early neural network theory dating almost forty years ago. They apply the tree-like memory features in spiking neural networks to demonstrate high fidelity object recognition, and in future can open new directions for neuromorphic computing and artificial intelligence.

a Schematic figure of the perovskite nickelate NdNiO3 device with Pd as top electrode and fluorine-doped tin oxide (FTO) as bottom electrode. The top electrode serves also to catalytically dope hydrogen into the near-surface region of the perovskite. Applying electric field pulses can move the protons in the lattice which also changes the local Ni valence state and electron-electron correlation, thus modulating the device resistance in a systematic manner. b Schematic of the tree structure showing synaptic strength (resistance) as function of number of stimulus (electric pulses). The electrical resistance of the perovskite devices can be modulated with consecutive electric pulses. The snapshots schematically show the movement of protons in the lattice, which leads to different resistivity values. c Architecture of spiking neural network for handwritten digit recognition. Each input image pixel is assigned to one input neuron. Input layer generates Poisson’s distributed spike train depending on the pixel intensity values, which potentiates the membrane potential (Vmem) of excitatory layer neuron. These spikes are propagated from input to excitatory layer through synapses which learns using spike time dependent plasticity (STDP) learning rule. Once membrane potential reaches a threshold (Vthresh), the neuron generates a spike and synapse weights are updated. The tree structure graph represents how synaptic weight changes with input strength. Different curves correspond to different constant inputs. d Evolution of digit learning using the tree-like synapses. Step (I) shows the synapse weights at initial stages of learning, (II) and (III) show weights after learning from 10,000 and 30,000 training images, and (IV) is the final learned weights after training on 60,000 images.

How will service robots redefine leadership in hotel management? A Delphi approach

by Shi Xu, Jason Stienmetz, Mark Ashton in International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management

A new research study, investigating how service robots in hotels could help redefine leadership and boost the hospitality industry, has taken on new significance in the light of the seismic impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on tourism and hospitality.

Using the Delphi technique, this paper aims to investigate how human resource experts perceive service robots will impact leadership and human resource management in the hospitality industry.

A three-stage Delphi study with hotel industry human resource experts was conducted to identify the key trends and major challenges that will emerge in the next ten years and how leaders should deal with the challenges brought about by service robot technologies.

The results show that while service robots are anticipated to increase efficiency and productivity of hotel activities, they may also pose challenges such as high costs, skill deficits and significant changes to the organizational structure and culture of hotels. Therefore, the anticipated applications and integration of robotic technology will require leaders of the future to carefully consider the balance between the roles of service robots and human employees in the guest experience and to nurture a work environment that embraces open-mindedness and change.

This is the first type of study to examine hospitality leadership and human resource management in the context of robotized hotels. This study has taken an important step to understand the leadership role in robotized hotels from a human resource perspective and brings clarity as to how robotic technology can influence leadership in the future workplace.

Competing with Robots: Firm-Level Evidence from France

by Daron Acemoglu, Claire LeLarge, Pascual Restrepo. NBER Program(s):Economic Fluctuations and Growth, Labor Studies

A new study reveals an important pattern: Firms that move quickly to use robots tend to add workers to their payroll, while industry job losses are more concentrated in firms that make this change more slowly. The study examines the introduction of robots to French manufacturing in recent decades, illuminating the business dynamics and labor implications in granular detail.

Using several sources, researchers construct a data set of robot purchases by French manufacturing firms and study the firm-level implications of robot adoption. Out of 55,390 firms in our sample, 598 have adopted robots between 2010 and 2015, but these firms account for 20% of manufacturing employment and value added. Consistent with theory, robot adopters experience significant declines in labor share and the share of production workers in employment, and increases in value added and productivity. They expand their overall employment as well. However, this expansion comes at the expense of their competitors (as automation reduces their relative costs). Scientists show that the overall impact of robot adoption on industry employment is negative. They further document that the impact of robots on overall labor share is greater than their firm-level effects because robot adopters are larger and grow faster than their competitors.

“Looking at the result, you might think [at first] it’s the opposite of the U.S. result, where the robot adoption goes hand in hand with destruction of jobs, whereas in France, robot-adopting firms are expanding their employment,” Acemoglu says. “But that’s only because they’re expanding at the expense of their competitors. What we show is that when we add the indirect effect on those competitors, the overall effect is negative and comparable to what we find the in the U.S.”

Influence of Data Clouds Fusion From 3D Real-Time Vision System on Robotic Group Dead Reckoning in Unknown Terrain

by Mykhailo Ivanov, Oleg Sergyienko, Vera Tyrsa, Lars Lindner, Wendy Flores-Fuentes, Julio Cesar Rodríguez-Quiñonez, Wilmar Hernandez, Paolo Mercorelli

A group of researchers and engineers has created a new way for robots to pool data gathered in real time, allowing them to ‘think’ collectively and navigate their way through difficult, previously unmapped obstacles as a team.

This paper proposes the solution of tasks set required for autonomous robotic group behavior optimization during the mission on a distributed area in a cluttered hazardous terrain. The navigation scheme uses the benefits of the original real-time technical vision system (TVS) based on a dynamic triangulation principle. The method uses TVS output data with fuzzy logic rules processing for resolution stabilization. Based on previous researches, the dynamic communication network model is modified to implement the propagation of information with a feedback method for more stable data exchange inside the robotic group. According to the comparative analysis of approximation methods, in this paper authors are proposing to use two-steps post-processing path planning aiming to get a smooth and energy-saving trajectory. The article provides a wide range of studies and computational experiment results for different scenarios for evaluation of common cloud point influence on robotic motion planning.


People think robots are pretty incompetent and not funny, new study says

Detecting gender bias against robots was the original intent of a study that revealed two surprises: The gender bias didn’t appear. In its place, people were predisposed to find robots mostly incompetent — no matter the gender.

The studies were originally intended to test for gender bias, that is, if people thought a robot believed to be female may be less competent at some jobs than a robot believed to be male and vice versa. The studies’ titles even included the words “gender,” “stereotypes,” and “preference,” but researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology discovered no significant sexism against the machines.

“This did surprise us. There was only a very slight difference in a couple of jobs but not significant. There was, for example, a small preference for a male robot over a female robot as a package deliverer,” said Ayanna Howard, the principal investigator in both studies. Howard is a professor in and the chair of Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing.

Although robots are not sentient, as people increasingly interface with them, we begin to humanize the machines. Howard studies what goes right as we integrate robots into society and what goes wrong, and much of both has to do with how the humans feel around robots.

I hate robots

“Surveillance robots are not socially engaging, but when we see them, we still may act like we would when we see a police officer, maybe not jaywalking and being very conscientious of our behavior,” said Howard, who is also Linda J. and Mark C. Smith Chair and Professor in Bioengineering in Georgia Tech’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

“Then there are emotionally engaging robots designed to tap into our feelings and work with our behavior. If you look at these examples, they lead us to treat these robots as if they were fellow intelligent beings.”

It’s a good thing robots don’t have feelings because what study participants lacked in gender bias they more than made up for in judgments against robot competence. That predisposition was so strong that Howard wondered if it may have overridden any potential gender biases against robots — after all, social science studies have shown that gender biases are still prevalent with respect to human jobs, even if implicit.

In questionnaires, humanoid robots introduced themselves via video to randomly recruited online survey respondents, who ranged in age from their twenties to their seventies and were mostly college-educated. The humans ranked robots’ career competencies compared to human abilities, only trusting the machines to competently perform a handful of simple jobs.

Pass the scalpel

“The results baffled us because the things that people thought robots were less able to do were things that they do well. One was the profession of surgeon. There are Da Vinci robots that are pervasive in surgical suites, but respondents didn’t think robots were competent enough,” Howard said. “Security guard — people didn’t think robots were competent at that, and there are companies that specialize in great robot security.”

Cumulatively, the 200 participants across the two studies thought robots would also fail as nannies, therapists, nurses, firefighters, and totally bomb as comedians. But they felt confident bots would make fantastic package deliverers and receptionists, pretty good servers, and solid tour guides.

The researchers could not say where the competence biases originate. Howard could only speculate that some of the bad rap may have come from media stories of robots doing things like falling into swimming pools or injuring people.

It’s a boy

Despite the lack of gender bias, participants readily assigned genders to the humanoid robots. For example, people accepted gender prompts by robots introducing themselves in videos.

If a robot said, “Hi, my name is James,” in a male-sounding voice, people mostly identified the robot as male. If it said, “Hi, my name is Mary,” in a female voice, people mostly said it was female.

Some robots greeted people by saying “Hi” in a neutral sounding voice, and still, most participants assigned the robot a gender. The most common choice was male followed by neutral then by female. For Howard, this was an important takeaway from the study for robot developers.

“Developers should not force gender on robots. People are going to gender according to their own experiences. Give the user that right. Don’t reinforce gender stereotypes,” Howard said.

Social is good

Some in Howard’s field advocate for not building robots in humanoid form at all in order to discourage gendering and other humanization, but Howard does not take it that far.

“Robots can be good for social interaction. They could be very helpful in elder care facilities to keep people company. They might also make better nannies than letting the TV babysit the kids,” said Howard, who also defended robots’ comedic talent, provided they are programmed for that.

“If you ever go to an amusement park, there are animatronics that tell really good jokes.”


Very creative research on wheeled platforms from CSIRO Data61:

This video highlighting autonomous drone research from the Multi-robot Systems Group at FEE-CTU in Prague is awesome because the first half is full of drones being awesome, and the second half is full of drones, uh, being less awesome.

RoboTiCan is providing telepresence robots to hospitals in Israel, including Soroka hospital in Beer Sheva and Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem:

Refraction AI, a University of Michigan startup that began delivering food in late 2019, says its pilot deployment of five “Rev-1” robots is doing four times as many runs since the COVID-19 crisis began:

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