Archive 30.08.2019

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Robots can now learn to swarm on the go

A new generation of swarming robots which can independently learn and evolve new behaviours in the wild is one step closer, thanks to research from the University of Bristol and the University of the West of England (UWE).

The team used artificial evolution to enable the robots to automatically learn swarm behaviours which are understandable to humans. This new advance published this Friday in Advanced Intelligent Systems, could create new robotic possibilities for environmental monitoring, disaster recovery, infrastructure maintenance, logistics and agriculture. Read More

A miniature stretchable pump for the next generation of soft robots

By Laure-Anne Pessina and Nicola Nosengo
Scientists at EPFL have developed a tiny pump that could play a big role in the development of autonomous soft robots, lightweight exoskeletons and smart clothing. Flexible, silent and weighing only one gram, it is poised to replace the rigid, noisy and bulky pumps currently used. The scientists’ work has just been published in Nature.

Soft robots have a distinct advantage over their rigid forebears: they can adapt to complex environments, handle fragile objects and interact safely with humans. Made from silicone, rubber or other stretchable polymers, they are ideal for use in rehabilitation exoskeletons – such as the ones being developed in the NCCR Robotics “Wearable Robotics” research line – and robotic clothing. Soft bio-inspired robots could one day be deployed to explore remote or dangerous environments.

Most soft robots are actuated by rigid, noisy pumps that push fluids into the machines’ moving parts. Because they are connected to these bulky pumps by tubes, these robots have limited autonomy and are cumbersome to wear at best.

Cutting soft robots’ tether
Researchers in EPFL’s Soft Transducers Laboratory (LMTS) and Laboratory of Intelligent Systems (LIS – led by NCCR Robotics Director Dario Floreano), in collaboration with researchers at the Shibaura Institute of Technology in Tokyo, Japan, have developed the first entirely soft pump – even the electrodes are flexible. Weighing just one gram, the pump is completely silent and consumes very little power, which it gets from a 2 cm by 2 cm circuit that includes a rechargeable battery. “If we want to actuate larger robots, we connect several pumps together,” says Herbert Shea, the director of the LMTS.
This innovative pump could rid soft robots of their tethers. “We consider this a paradigm shift in the field of soft robotics,” adds Shea.

Soft pumps can also be used to circulate liquids in thin flexible tubes embedded in smart clothing, leading to garments that can actively cool or heat different regions of the body. That would meet the needs of surgeons, athletes and pilots, for example.

How does it work?
The soft and stretchable pump is based on the physical mechanism used today to circulate the cooling liquid in systems like supercomputers. The pump has a tube-shaped channel, 1mm in diameter, inside of which rows of electrodes are printed. The pump is filled with a dielectric liquid. When a voltage is applied, electrons jump from the electrodes to the liquid, giving some of the molecules an electrical charge. These molecules are subsequently attracted to other electrodes, pulling along the rest of the fluid through the tube with them. “We can speed up the flow by adjusting the electric field, yet it remains completely silent,” says Vito Cacucciolo, a post-doc at the LMTS and the lead author of the study.

Developing artificial muscles in Japan
The researchers have successfully implanted their pump in a type of robotic finger widely used in soft robotics labs. They are now collaborating with Koichi Suzumori’s laboratory in Japan, which is developing fluid-driven artificial muscles and flexible exoskeletons.

The EPFL team has also fitted a fabric glove with tubes and shown that it is possible to heat or cool regions of the glove as desired using the pump. “It works a little like your home heating and cooling system” says Cacucciolo. This application has already sparked interest from a number of companies.

Literature
V. Cacucciolo, J. Shintake, Y. Kuwajima, S. Maeda, D. Floreano, H. Shea, “Stretchable pumps for soft machines”, Nature, vol. 572, no 7769, Aug. 2019.
doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1479-6

Suit up with a robot to walk AND run more easily

The light-weight versatile exosuit assists hip extension during uphill walking and at different running speeds in natural terrain. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

By Benjamin Boettner

Between walking at a leisurely pace and running for your life, human gaits can cover a wide range of speeds. Typically, we choose the gait that allows us to consume the least amount of energy at a given speed. For example, at low speeds, the metabolic rate of walking is lower than that of running in a slow jog; vice versa at high speeds, the metabolic cost of running is lower than that of speed walking.

Researchers in academic and industry labs have previously developed robotic devices for rehabilitation and other areas of life that can either assist walking or running, but no untethered portable device could efficiently do both. Assisting walking and running with a single device is challenging because of the fundamentally different biomechanics of the two gaits. However, both gaits have in common an extension of the hip joint, which starts around the time when the foot comes in contact with the ground and requires considerable energy for propelling the body forward.

As reported today in Science, a team of researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), and the University of Nebraska Omaha now has developed a portable exosuit that assists with gait-specific hip extension during both walking and running. Their lightweight exosuit is made of textile components worn at the waist and thighs, and a mobile actuation system attached to the lower back which is controlled by an algorithm that can robustly detect the transition from walking to running and vice versa.

The team first showed that the exosuit worn by users in treadmill-based indoor tests, on average, reduced their metabolic costs of walking by 9.3% and of running by 4% compared to when they were walking and running without the device. “We were excited to see that the device also performed well during uphill walking, at different running speeds and during overground testing outside, which showed the versatility of the system,” said Conor Walsh, Ph.D., who led the study. Walsh is a Core Faculty member of the Wyss Institute, the Gordon McKay Professor of Engineering and Applied Sciences at SEAS, and Founder of the Harvard Biodesign Lab. “While the metabolic reductions we found are modest, our study demonstrates that it is possible to have a portable wearable robot assist more than just a single activity, helping to pave the way for these systems to become ubiquitous in our lives,” said Walsh.

The hip exosuit was developed as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)’s former Warrior Web program and is the culmination of years of research and optimization of the soft exosuit technology by the team. A previous multi-joint exosuit developed by the team could assist both the hip and ankle during walking, and a medical version of the exosuit aimed at improving gait rehabilitation for stroke survivors is now commercially available in the US and Europe, via a collaboration with ReWalk Robotics.

The team’s most recent hip-assisting exosuit is designed to be simpler and lighter weight compared to their past multi-joint exosuit. It assists the wearer via a cable actuation system. The actuation cables apply a tensile force between the waist belt and thigh wraps to generate an external extension torque at the hip joint that works in concert with the gluteal muscles. The device weighs 5kg in total with more than 90% of its weight located close to the body’s center of mass. “This approach to concentrating the weight, combined with the flexible apparel interface, minimizes the energetic burden and movement restriction to the wearer,” said co-first-author Jinsoo Kim, a SEAS graduate student in Walsh’s group. “This is important for walking, but even more so for running as the limbs move back and forth much faster.” Kim shared the first-authorship with Giuk Lee, Ph.D., a former postdoctoral fellow on Walsh’s team and now Assistant Professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea.

A major challenge the team had to solve was that the exosuit needed to be able to distinguish between walking and running gaits and change its actuation profiles accordingly with the right amount of assistance provided at the right time of the gait cycle.

To explain the different kinetics during the gait cycles, biomechanists often compare walking to the motions of an inverted pendulum and running to the motions of a spring-mass system. During walking, the body’s center of mass moves upward after heel-strike, then reaches maximum height at the middle of the stance phase to descend towards the end of the stance phase. In running, the movement of the center of mass is opposite. It descends towards a minimum height at the middle of the stance phase and then moves upward towards push-off.

“We took advantage of these biomechanical insights to develop our biologically inspired gait classification algorithm that can robustly and reliably detect a transition from one gait to the other by monitoring the acceleration of an individual’s center of mass with sensors that are attached to the body,” said co-corresponding author Philippe Malcolm, Ph.D., Assistant Professor at University of Nebraska Omaha. “Once a gait transition is detected, the exosuit automatically adjusts the timing of its actuation profile to assist the other gait, as we demonstrated by its ability to reduce metabolic oxygen consumption in wearers.”

In ongoing work, the team is focused on optimizing all aspects of the technology, including further reducing weight, individualizing assistance and improving ease of use. “It is very satisfying to see how far our approach has come,” said Walsh, “and we are excited to continue to apply it to a range of applications, including assisting those with gait impairments, industry workers at risk of injury performing physically strenuous tasks, or recreational weekend warriors.”

The team’s portable exosuit is made of textile components worn at the waist and thighs, and a mobile actuation system attached to the lower back which uses an algorithm that robustly predicts transitions between walking and running gaits. Credit: Wyss Institute at Harvard University

“This breakthrough study coming out of the Wyss Institute’s Bioinspired Soft Robotics platform gives us a glimpse into a future where wearable robotic devices can improve the lives of the healthy, as well as serve those with injuries or in need of rehabilitation,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., who is also the Judah Folkman Professor of Vascular Biology at Harvard Medical School, the Vascular Biology Program at Boston Children’s Hospital, and Professor of Bioengineering at SEAS.

Other authors on the study are past and present members of Walsh’s team, including data analyst Roman Heimgartner; Research Fellow Dheepak Arumukhom Revi; Control Engineer Nikos Karavas, Ph.D.; Functional Apparel Designer Danielle Nathanson; Robotics Engineer Ignacio Galiana, Ph.D.; Robotics Engineer Asa Eckert-Erdheim; Electromechanical Engineer Patrick Murphy; Engineer David Perry; Software Engineer Nicolas Menard, and graduate student Dabin Kim Choe. The study was funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Warrior Web Program, the National Science Foundation and Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

Water-landing drones fly BVLOS missions over marine reserve against illegal fishing and pro-biodiversity

Two units of amphibian Aeromapper Talons were utilized successfully during a set of trials during an expedition to beautiful Turneffe Atoll in Belize, in a work lead by the Zoological Society of London and the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association. The drones, built by Canadian company Aeromao, were used to detect and document illegal fishing activities and ecology research toward conservation efforts. The Turneffe marine protected area (MPA) in Belize, was delineated in 2012, but is difficult to manage, in part due to illegal fishing, its remoteness, and high running costs.

Image Credit: Aeromao Inc. – www.aeromao.com

The water-landing and waterproof fixed-wing, long range, multi camera drones were trialled to monitor and survey marine megafauna (such as turtles, dolphins and sharks) but also as an exercise to gather evidence of illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU).

The amphibious drone was able to fly to the site of interest at 110m altitude, gather intelligence and fly back very quickly. The images highlighted that indeed illegal building work had been occurring. Without the UAV the conservation officers would have no way of knowing this and they were very excited at this revelation”, states one of the conservation officers.

Image Credit: Aeromao Inc. – www.aeromao.com

The current enforcement strategy on the Turneffe atoll involves patrols in small boats, around the atoll, to find illegal fishers. Systematic surveys for megafauna aren’t regularly carried out, so the conservation officers tend to document animals they happen across on their patrol. However, boat fuel is very costly, and this limits the amount of area the conservation officers can patrol. The drones proved to a be an exceptional low-cost solution to these challenges.  

The conservation team found the front live-link HD camera an exceptional revelation, especially since they were immediately able to spot a diving boat on the LCD screen, that they could barely see from land. The UAV can fly for up to one and half hours, which, flying at 62kph, is a considerable distance and area potentially covered for surveillance.

Image Credit: Aeromao Inc. – www.aeromao.com

The pair of drones were also repeatedly operated in BVLOS scenarios. In fact, 24 BVLOS flights were successfully flown during the trials, average length of 10.9km and with total transect lengths of 263km.  The UAV reached a furthest point Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) of 11.3km. BVLOS was tested in a scenario where the conservation officers particularly wanted to scope out a development site several kilometres away across a large bay in order to detect any infringement of their building contract.The amphibious drone was able to fly to the site of interest at 110m altitude, gather intelligence and fly back very quickly. The images & video recorded highlighted that indeed illegal building work had been occurring. Without the UAV the conservation officers would have no way of knowing this and they were very excited at this revelation “We now have the tool we need to see further and faster than before. No one will see us coming!”, Maurice, a conservation officer reported.

“The pair of drones were also repeatedly operated in BVLOS scenarios. In fact, 24 BVLOS flights were successfully flown during the trials, average length of 10.9km and with total transect lengths of 263km.  The UAV reached a furthest point Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) of 11.3km.”

Image Credit: Aeromao Inc. – www.aeromao.com

Whilst the UAV flies, the 20mp nadir camera takes 5 images per second, or stunning HD film and the front camera, which can be panned left to right, films and records a live stream, allowing the conservation officers and us, to see what’s out there, in real time, on an LCD screen back at the ground station. Although the drones normally fly on pre-designed routes in auto mode, switching to “assisted mode” to investigate something of interest, is no problem. This kind of flexibility means that if fishers are found in the wrong place, the drones can be steered quickly to get closer pictures of them or loiter around the point of interest at the desired altitude to keep a constant eye in the sky, or if dolphins are spotted for example, the drones can be redirected to take a closer look and use the images to estimate the numbers of the population in the area. Mapping of habitats, using the nadir camera was also possible. Some areas of coral reef and seagrass beds were mapped using Agisoft Metashape.  

Several static launches of the UAV from a small, moving skiff were successfully performed, which is something that is unheard of for a fixed wing – long range amphibious unmanned aircraft. This is a tremendously important, and previously unknown ability of the UAV, as it now means that the conservation officers can steam to an area where a beach for launching may not exist (very common in mangrove forests), and simply launch from the boat, then land on the water besides the skiff once the mission is completed. This way, no-where the atoll is out of reach for the conservation team.

Impressive geo-referenced images of turtles, sharks, eagle rays, manatees and birds were gathered during the surveys. A variety of habitats were captured, and to identify environmental issues, such as accumulation of plastic debris, and of sargassum seaweed which can cause deoxygenation of the water and block out sunlight.

Data was used to build a spatial picture of how the atoll is used, be it by fishers or fauna, i.e. how the animals use different habitats and when, and when and where fishers are acting with impunity. The results and conclusions can feed directly into planning where marine protected zones are placed. Previously, information on fish abundances would be collected from by-catch on fishing vessels. Since the Turneffe Atoll is a protected area, you can’t rely on catch data anymore- this is where the drones really come into their own as a non-invasive and efficient tool for surveying.

The scientists leading the expedition stated that having a UAV which can easily land on the ocean, safely, and be flown again in moments, is an exceptionally valuable tool. Likewise, the conservation officers in the Turneffe Atoll are adamant that a UAV like the ones trialled, will become an essential part of their patrolling and enforcement strategy, which will ultimately lead to increased biodiversity in the area.

Read full report Case Study and Technical Report here: https://www.aeromao.com/2019/08/02/aeromapper-talon-amphibious-routinely-fly-bvlos-missions-over-marine-reserve-for-illegal-fishing-detection-and-biodiversity-research/

Melissa Schiele
Amphibious drone tech/Postgraduate research assistant

Institute of Zoology
Zoological Society of London, 
Regent’s Park, London NW1 4RY


Email: melissa.schiele@ioz.ac.uk

Twitter: @explorer_mel

TY  – BOOK

AU  – Schiele, Melissa

AU  – Letessier, Tom

AU  – Burke, Claire

PY  – 2019/05/01

SP  –

T1  – Amphibious Drone Field Report, Belize. In partnership with the Turneffe Atoll Sustainability Association, Zoological Society of London, the Marine Management Organisation and the Bertarelli Foundation

DO  – 10.13140/RG.2.2.35265.92004

ER  –

About the Aeromapper Talon Amphibious

The Amphibious version of the Aeromapper Talon allows maritime operations by autonomously belly landing on water. It’s the perfect solution for scouting, data collection and mapping thanks to its dual camera set up and long-range video link, up to 2hr endurance and demonstrated BVLOS capabilities up to 30kms from the operators.

The only truly amphibious multipurpose fixed wing drone in the market today, it can sustain repeated operations in salt or fresh water. Perfect for:

  • Fisheries
  • Marshlands
  • Marine research and conservation
  • Search and rescue
  • Water quality monitoring
  • Off-shore infrastructure inspection
  • Coastal surveying
  • Hydrography
  • Marine management

More information:  https://www.aeromao.com/products/aeromapper-talon-amphibious/

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