The Universal Robotic Gripper

I just saw a video of device that consists of nothing more than a rubber balloon, some coffee grounds and a pump. I’m pretty sure it’s going to change robotics forever. Have a look:

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It’s a wonderful design. It’s cheap to make. You don’t need to position it precisely. You need only minimal knowledge of the object you’re picking up. Robotic grasping has always been too hard to be really practical in the wild. Now a whole class of objects just got relatively easy.

Clearly, the design has it’s limitations. It’s not going to allow for turning the pages of a book, making a cheese sandwich, tying a dasiy chain, etc. But for relatively straightforward manipulation of rigid objects, it’s a beautiful solution. This one little idea could help start a whole industry.

The research was a collaboration between Chicago, Cornell and iRobot, with funding from DARPA. It made the cover of PNAS this month. The research page is here.

Progress at Willow Garage

Just came across this new video of the Willow Garage PR2 robot. They’re making rapid progress. When they reach their goal of distributing these platforms to research groups around the world, it will be a good day for robotics. One neat package that comes out of the box up many different near-state-of-the-art capabilities. Right now every research group is independently re-creating platforms from scratch, and it’s a huge obstacle to progress.
If you haven’t heard of Willow Garage, I have an overview here.

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Update: Another new video, celebrating two successive days of autonomous runs.

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Mobile Manipulation Made Easy

GetRobo has an interesting interview with Brian Gerkey of Willow Garage. Willow Garage are a strange outfit – a not-for-profit company developing open source robotic hardware and software, closely linked to Stanford. They’re funded privately by a dot com millionaire. They started with several projects including autonomous cars and autonomous boats, but now concentrate on building a new robot called PR2.

The key thing PR2 is designed to support is mobile manipulation. Basically research robots right now come in two varieties – sensors on wheels, that move about but can’t interact with anything, and fixed robotic arms, that manipulate objects but are rooted in place. A few research groups have build mobile manipulation systems where the robot can both move about and interact with objects, but the barrier to entry here is really high. There’s a massive amount of infrastructure you need to get a decent mobile manipulation platform going – navigation, obstacle avoidance, grasping, cross-calibration, etc. As a result, there are very very few researchers in this area. This is a terrible shame, because there are all sorts of interesting possibilities opened up by having a robot that can both move and interact. Willow Garage’s PR2 is designed to fill the gap – an off-the-shelf system that provides basic mobile manipulation capabilities.

Brian: We have a set of demos that we hope that the robot can do out of the box. So things like basic navigation around the environment so that it doesn’t run into things and basic motion planning with the arms, basic identifying which is looking at an object and picking it out from sitting on the table and picking it up and moving it somewhere. So the idea is that it should have some basic mobile manipulation capabilities so that the researcher who’s interested in object recognition doesn’t have to touch the arm part in order to make the object recognizer better. The arm part is not to say that it can be improved but good enough.

If they can pull this off it’ll be great for robotics research. All the pieces don’t have to be perfect, just enough so that say a computer vision group could start exploring interactive visual learning without having to worry too much about arm kinematics, or a manipulation group could experiment on a mobile platform without having to write a SLAM engine.

Another interesting part of the interview was the discussion of software standards. Brian is one of the lead authors of Player/Stage, the most popular robot OS. Player is popular, but very far from universal – there are nearly as many robot OSes as there are robot research groups (e.g. CARMEN, Orca, MRPT, MOOS, Orocos, CLARAty, MS Robotics Studio, etc, etc). It seems PR2 will have yet another OS, for which there are no apologies:

I think it’s probably still too early in robotics to come up with a standard. I don’t think we have enough deployed systems that do real work to have a meaningful standard. Most of the complex robots we have are in research labs. A research lab is the first place we throw away a standard. They’re building the next thing. So in robotics labs, a standard will be of not much use. They are much more useful when you get to the commercialization side to build interoperable piece. And at that point we may want to talk about standards and I think it’s still a little early. Right now I’m much more interested in getting a large user community and large developer community. I’m less interested in whether it’s blessed as a standard by a standard’s body.

Anyone working in robotics will recognise the truth of this. Very much a sensible attitude for the moment.

Google Street View – Soon in 3D?

Some Google Street View cars were spotted in Italy this morning. Anyone who works in robotics will immediately notice the SICK laser scanners. It looks like we can expect 3D city data from Google sometime soon. Very interesting!

Street View car spotted in Rome

More pictures of the car here, here and here.

The cars have two side-facing vertical scanners, and another forward-facing horizontal scanner. Presumably they will do scan matching with the horizontal laser, and use that to align the data from the side-facing lasers to get some 3D point clouds. Typical output will look like this (video shows data collected from a similar system built by one of my labmates.)

The other sensors on the pole seem to have been changed too. Gone are the Ladybug2 omnidirectional cameras used on the American and Australian vehicles, replaced by what looks like a custom camera array. This photo also shows a third sensor, which I can’t identify.

So, what is Google doing with 3D laser data? The obvious application is 3D reconstruction for Google Earth. Their current efforts to do this involve user-generated 3D models from Sketchup. They have quite a lot of contributed models, but there is only so far you can get with an approach like that. With an automated solution, they could go for blanket 3D coverage. For an idea of what the final output might look like, have a look at the work of Frueh and Zakhor at Berkeley. They combined aerial and ground based laser with photo data to create full 3D city models. I am not sure Google will go to quite this length, but it certainly looks like they’re made a start on collecting the street-level data. Valleywag claims Google are hiring 300 drivers for their European data gathering efforts, so they will soon be swimming in laser data.

Frueh and Zakhor 3D city model


Google aren’t alone in their 3D mapping efforts. Startup Earthmine has been working on this for a while, using a stereo-vision based approach (check out their slick video demonstrating the system). I also recently built a street-view car myself, to gather data for my PhD research. One way or another, it looks like online maps are headed to a new level in the near future.

Update:  Loads more sightings of these cars, all over the world. San Francisco, Oxford, all over Spain. Looks like this is a full-scale data gathering effort, rather than a small test project.