UMass Amherst: The Magazine for Alumni and Friends

Fall 2008

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Hot Bots
They walk, they talk, and soon they might be doing your dishes, and taking your blood pressure, too
By Brendan Lynch ’00


Photo: Professor Rod Grupen
Professor Rod Grupen, director of the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics, where the uBot was created.

Researchers at two campus robotics labs have emerged at the cutting edge of the field on the backs of three projects: UMan, uBot, and Dexter.

The UMan, or UMass Mobile Manipulator, couples a robotic arm with a digital camera that allows it to learn about objects it encounters in the real world. The fifth iteration of the uBot has inspired the creation of startup DigitRobotics LLC. And Dexter, which comprises two arms and a two-camera head atop a stationary torso, can pick up objects with one or both hands.

The UMan was developed by computer science doctoral candidate Dov Katz and professor Oliver Brock in the Robotics and Biology Lab. The robot uses a digital camera that allows a robotic arm to “see” objects and the environment. An algorithm turns that data into trial-and-error-based learning. The arm pushes on objects and observes how they change, similar to a child exploring the physical dimensions of the world. UMan stores this knowledge for later use in performing specific tasks, such as opening scissors. “Once robots learn to combine movement, perception, and the manipulation of objects, they will be able to perform meaningful work in environments that are unstructured and constantly changing,” says Katz.

Not far away, in the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics directed by professor Rod Grupen, Computer Science, the uBot-5 recently put all that information together to autonomously pick up a cylinder. The uBot, originally a government-funded project for small robots meant to be deployed in swarms to search emergency sites, has evolved into a balancing, two-wheeled mobile manipulator with a “face” made up of a Skype hook-up and a flat-screen head. Across the room sits Dexter, which uses its arms and camera eyes to learn about interacting with the physical world with single-hand and full-body motion.

New - Fox News visits the lab

PhD students Patrick Deegan and Bryan Thibodeau have spun their lab experience and uBot technology into a business. They sell robotics platforms to researchers at colleges. Digit already has customers; three units are in production for MIT’s Media Lab, which uses the uBot as the chassis for Nexi, its emotion-expressing, dexterous robot. Digit is also working under a NASA Small Business Technology Transfer grant to develop software to control whole-body mobile manipulator robots, such as the uBot-5. (YouTube video)

That’s a healthy start for a new business, when you consider the most commercially successful robot is the Roomba, which sells for $130, cleans floors while you sleep, and was developed by MIT spinout iRobot. (Grupen uses a Roomba to keep his lab tidy.)

As the technology becomes more cost effective, the market should expand. Experts predict that in a decade, the sales of personal robots could surpass sales of industrial robots, now about $3 billion and $4.6 billion a year, respectively.

Investors and researchers are eyeing the home health care market, especially as baby-boomers get on in age. “Health care seems to be the place where the evolving price point and the value of service are crossing first,” says Grupen. Digit’s uBot has already demonstrated in the lab the ability to check on a fallen person, call emergency services, and conduct a remote check on vital signs.

Grupen says he’s motivated to discover what robots have in common with human beings and other animals. He says researchers are now beginning to appreciate that the description of natural systems is incomplete without an understanding of the system’s computational nature—how it perceives information, models the world, and makes decisions. “Robots bring the natural sciences together with computer science and the social and behavioral sciences to learn how humans really work.”

Grupen says playfully that while robots may indeed take over the world, only some of them will be evil: “It’s unlikely that they can all be recruited to the same common purpose—just like human beings.”

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They walk, they talk, and soon they might be doing your dishes, and taking your blood pressure, too
 
 
 
 

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