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Idaho National Laboratory

Humanoid Robotics
Service & Entertainment Robots

Human-robot interaction plays a crucial role in the burgeoning market for intelligent personal, service and entertainment robots. Applications include everything from robots that assist the elderly and severely disabled to entertainment robots at amusement parks. Increasingly, robots that can serve as mobile, autonomous tour guides and information kiosks will grace public places. One encouraging example is Minerva, a popular tour guide at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, which uses a rich repertoire of interactive capabilities to attract people and guide them through the museum. Minerva's facial features and humanoid form have had a profound effect on the way in which people respond to it.

Photo: Minerva

Minerva's face with a 'happy' expression. Carnegie Mellon University.

HARIS, a robotic arm and human interface, is designed to help disabled people move and fetch objects. With the human hand as a model, researchers created a robotic manipulation system capable of tasks such as picking up a coffee cup, grasping an egg, dialing a telephone call, and holding a coffee bottle. HARIS is comprised of three separate arm segments and a hand. The arm has three joints and 8 DOF. The hand has five fingers, 178 tactile sensors and 17 DOF. The mechanical arm itself, however, is only the first problem that must be solved before service robots can be truly useful. The robotic system must also include a scene-understanding system, 3D-vision system, a real-time motion-scheduling system, an arm-control system and a knowledge architecture that allows it to capture and use information about its environment.

To accomplish this, the designers tried to model human ways of storing information, communicating and scheduling actions. The author has integrated this arm with stereovision cameras that allow the robot to perceive several real-world objects such as cups and trays. The robot can discern the color of objects, their position and whether cups are empty or full. With the help of a natural language processing program, the robot can carry out commands such as "Get the blue cup!"

Photo: HARIS hand

Dexterous hand of HARIS, a robotic arm and human interface. National Center for Science Information Systems in Tokyo, Japan.

To be truly useful as a service robot, HARIS must understand simple relationships between the elements of its environment. It must know, for example, that tea and coffee go into cups but not into plates. It must know that cups go on saucers and that they are easier to move when empty than when full. It is difficult for us to conceive just how much knowledge we draw upon even when we do simple tasks. In fact, the hard problem for service robots is not the vision system, mechatronics or the natural language processing component, but rather the need for knowledge engineering.

Photo: HARIS hand

HARIS hand holding a pen. National Center for Science Information Systems in Tokyo, Japan.

HARIS uses a semantic network to store names, roles, attributes and relationships for each object in the environment. The author used this network to create a complex world model comprised of a shape model, a functional model, an object model and a spatial model. In addition, there is a task model that relates to tasking and human interaction. One of the greatest advantages to using a term-oriented semantic network is that information is already stored in high-level semantic form and lends itself to verbal interaction with humans. Instructions from a human transition smoothly into a scheduling process based on transitive verbs such as 'approach,' 'hold,' 'carry,' 'put,' and 'release.' Using its world model, HARIS can select a goal task to match the given command.It can generate a sequence of primitive tasks that will achieve this goal, and then converts these primitives to motion control.

Photo: HARIS arm

Full HARIS arm which uses a knowledge base to perform service tasks. National Center for Science Information Systems in Tokyo, Japan.

This project is a rare confluence of mechanical engineering, computer vision, knowledge engineering and natural language processing. It requires, however, that the robot be given a priori, a well-structured knowledge base that captures the objects and possible interactions within a defined domain. Thus, while HARIS's complex, rich knowledge architecture deals well with the few objects with which it is familiar with {red cup, blue cup, white tray, etc.}, it will be stymied by new objects. The idea of storing associations explicitly within frames may be functional for restricted tasks, but it bears little resemblance to the brain, in which associative connections are distributed implicitly (no explicit, hard-coded semantic representation) as spreading activation.

Photo: ISAC robot

ISAC feeding a physically challenged individual. Center for Intelligent Systems, Vanderbilt University.

An ambitious effort at Vanderbilt University is also working toward intelligent service robots that can help the sick, elderly and physically challenged live independently. Researchers at Vanderbilt believe that to accomplish this aim, their robot must be task-general and able to cope in unstructured, dynamic environments such as at home. ISAC hands are equipped with multi-fingered grippers that will allow the robot to pick up a variety of objects. To pick up a spoon, for instance, ISAC employs sensitive touch sensors that help it place the spoon between a thumb and three fingers.

Photo: Ursula

Ursula, an entertainment robot developed by Florida Robotics to amuse crowds at Universal Studios.

To deal with the complexity inherent to humanoid bodies and tasks, ISAC is designed as a multi-agent system where a separate agent is devoted to each functional area. For instance, one agent deals with arm movement, while another is devoted to interacting with humans. Using DataBase Associative Memory (DBAM), ISAC has the ability to store and structure the knowledge it acquires. To mimic long-term memory, DBAM uses a spreading activation network to form associations between database records. To efficiently structure its memories, ISAC uses a Sensory EgoSphere (SES) that processes incoming perceptual data according to spatial and temporal significance.

Photo: SARCOS

Full body humanoid designed by Utah based company, SARCOS.

Humanoid robots are also surfacing in the entertainment industry. "Ursula" the Female Android is a remote-controlled full-size robot that walks, talks, dances, plays music and more. "Ursula" makes for incredible entertainment and an effective communicator of special messages than can captivate any crowd. Each electromechanical android has a distinct look and unique personality that can be customized for any event. Special features of "Ursula" include fiber-optic hair, remote-controlled water guns and onboard video cameras.

Sarcos, a Utah-based company with considerable experience in entertainment engineering, has developed some of the world's most sophisticated humanoid robots and virtual reality interfaces. Sarcos entertainment robots are constructed not only to be high performance, but also to be sensitive and graceful. Sarcos has placed a great deal of emphasis on the aesthetics of its humanoid as well as the engineering. Its corporate staff includes leading designers, artists and craftspeople who style the robots. Concept development and graphic renderings are supported by a complete sculpting facility, where high-performance skins and other coverings are produced. They can be telecontrolled by a remote operator wearing a SenSuit or by a computer-controlled playback of a preprogrammed show. Recently, a Sarcos robot named DB has been used by the ERATO brain project in Japan to enable motion learning. DB has 30 D.O.F. and yet is nicely packaged in an 80kg, 1.85m body. Currently, a tether is needed to connect DB with its hydraulic air supply. Nonetheless, this is one of the most capable robots in history.

A number of smaller, commercially available humanoid robots have recently emerged on the scene, from some of the biggest names in the Japanese computer and electronics industry including Honda, Sony and Fujitsu. Competition amongst these players is harsh as the companies feel that humanoids represent perhaps the greatest untapped commercial market of the future.

Photo: Asimo

ASIMO: A new humanoid developed by HONDA that uses the walking technology developed over the past 20 years at HONDA, but in a smaller, more affordable package.

Photo: hrp-2p_2Kawada Industries has developed the HRP-2P, a 30 degree of freedom robot that is 5 feet tall, weighing only 127lbs.
Photo: Fujistsu robot

Fujitsu has developed the HOAP-1 (Humanoid Open Architecture Platform).

Photo: Sony robot

Sony has developed the SDR-4X that can sing and dance.

Contact:
David Bruemmer,