Monthly Robotics News – September 2021

The most interesting and intriguing robotics news from the past month, brought to you by the team at RoboDK.

Work from home directives, lockdowns, and pandemic-related travel restrictions are driving an unprecedented surge of interest in the use of digital simulation software for all sorts of scenarios.

One such scenario is DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge (SubT), which held a ‘Virtual Competition’ in September. Launched to enable teams to participate in the SubT without having to travel in person, the virtual event sees teams deploy robot simulations in simulated underground environments. DARPA explains: “Teams in the Virtual Competition developed software and algorithms using virtual models of systems, environments, and terrain to compete in simulation-based events, and explore simulated environments.”

Preparing for the final series of events in the DARPA SubT Challenge. Credit: DARPA

The final Virtual Competition event was held at the end of September in the Mega Cavern complex in Kentucky, U.S.A. with Team Dynamo picking up first place and a prize of USD750,000.

Launched in 2018, the DARPA SubT is held to spur improvements in robot performance when it comes to mapping, navigating, searching, and exploiting complex underground environments from human-made tunnel systems to natural cave networks.

A separate Systems Competition, involving physical robots taking on navigation and mapping challenges, was won by Team CEREBRUS (‘CollaborativE walking & flying RoBots for autonomous ExploRation in Underground Settings’) who picked up a cool USD2 million in prize money.

CNET provided a livestream of the final day’s events, September 24, as robots competed in both the Virtual and Systems competitions.

Demographics & Robot Adoption

One of the biggest challenges facing manufacturing, logistics and warehouse companies worldwide is a shortage of available labor. As the Financial Times put it: “Workers have long feared robots would take their jobs, but the tables have turned as logistics and delivery companies automate their businesses to tackle labour shortages.”

While much of the focus has been on difficulties around attracting young people into manufacturing and warehouse work, aging populations are also a key consideration when it comes to driving robotics adoption. A study from MIT published September in The Review of Economic Studies has found that aging is one of the most important factors leading to the adoption of robotics and other automation technologies. 

Science Daily:

The study finds that when it comes to the adoption of robots, aging alone accounts for 35 percent of the variation among countries. Within the U.S., the research shows the same pattern: Metro areas where the population is getting older at a faster rate are the places where industry invests more in robots.

Spot The Security Robot

Boston Dynamics’ dog-like ‘Spot’ and ‘SpotMini’ robots have starred in so many entertaining YouTube videos that it’s sometimes easy to forget that there are real world use cases for the world’s best-known quadrupedal robot. But over recent years the job of identifying, testing, and proving industrial use cases has been a major focus for the Spot team.

Spot is getting serious with its new role as a ‘Factory Service Robot’ at Hyundai. Credit: Hyundai

In September, Hyundai Motor Group announced a collaboration with Boston Dynamics on what it’s calling ‘The Factory Service Robot.’ Essentially, it’s a Spot mini with added thermal camera and 3D LiDAR sensors that is used to perform safety-related inspection tasks in Hyundai’s South Korean Kia plant. These tasks include monitoring the temperature of machinery, supporting security patrols, providing a mobile visual link for remote operators, and open/closed door detection and door control features. According to reports, if the trial is successful, Hyundai plans to expand Spot’s operational area and consider additional deployments in other locations.

Sharing Gaze With A Robot Befuddles Humans

Researchers at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia’s S4HRI lab have published the results of an experiment designed to determine whether a humanoid robot’s gaze influences the way people reason in a social decision-making context.

The European Research Council-funded team found that holding a mutual gaze with a humanoid robot affects human neural activity, specifically that it delays decision-making processes. As the researchers note, their findings have strong implications for scenarios where humanoid robots are co-workers, provide clinical support, or act as domestic assistants.

Meanwhile, a meta-analysis of dozens of studies into the effectiveness of humanoid robot design has found that anthropomorphic robot design does not always provide beneficial impacts. The two teams of German researchers found positive impacts to giving robots a human-like appearance in social and care settings. But these effects were reversed in industrial settings, especially when robots and humans collaborate on a task.

Psychologist Eileen Roesler, TU Berlin, one of the authors of the recently published human-robot interaction meta-analysis. Credit: TU Berlin

Innovation Origins:

Humans perceive industrial robots as perfect automations. We know they are super precise, whereas we, as humans, are prone to make mistakes. When robots are designed in a more human-like manner, we expect them to fail, because humans fail. Such perfection may be perceived as quite overwhelming.” – Eileen Roesler, TU Berlin

Squirrels & Maple Trees Inspire Robot Design

As many frustrated dogs can tell you, squirrels are extremely agile climbers that can dart from branch to branch and up steep inclines, showing impressive decision-making skills along the way. Now, researchers at UC Berkeley have studied the movement of squirrels to see whether insights gained can be applied to robot design.

Dean Culver, program manager for Complex Dynamics and Systems at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command told Popular Mechanics in an email:

The battlefield, especially the battlefield of the future, is an unpredictable place. If we want robotic platforms to go wherever the Warfighter can and more, these platforms will require fast, creative decision making at a low energetic cost surrounding tasks that humans take for granted. Like deciding whether to vault or circumnavigate an obstacle.

Elsewhere in the weird world of bio-inspired robots, a team at Northwestern University in the U.S.A. unveiled a winged microchip that could be used to monitor pollution and airborne disease. The team took inspiration from the seeds of maple trees and Tristellateia plants which use ‘wings’ to glide on the breeze.

RoboDK’s September Reading

Here are five more stories from September that caught our eye.

  • Amazon Just Revealed Its First Home Robot. Here’s What It’s Like To Use It (CNBC)
  • Telefonica (TEF) Arm Unveils World’s 1st Robotic Cybersecurity Lab (NASDAQ)
  • ROS 2 Simplifies Hardware Acceleration for Robots (Robotics Business Review)
  • KIMM Develops A Flexible, Stretchable Battery Capable Of Moving Smoothly Like Snake Scales (EurekAlert!)
  • Urgent Action Needed Over Artificial Intelligence Risks To Human Rights (United Nations)

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