Archive 28.01.2023

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Robot Talk Episode 34 – Interview with Sabine Hauert

Claire chatted to Dr Sabine Hauert from the University of Bristol all about swarm robotics, nanorobots, and environmental monitoring.

Sabine Hauert is Associate Professor of Swarm Engineering at University of Bristol. She leads a team of 20 researchers working on making swarms for people, and across scales, from nanorobots for cancer treatment, to larger robots for environmental monitoring, or logistics. Previously she worked at MIT and EPFL. She is President and Executive Trustee of non-profits robohub.org and aihub.org, which connect the robotics and AI communities to the public.

Special drone collects environmental DNA from trees

By Peter Rüegg

Ecologists are increasingly using traces of genetic material left behind by living organisms left behind in the environment, called environmental DNA (eDNA), to catalogue and monitor biodiversity. Based on these DNA traces, researchers can determine which species are present in a certain area.

Obtaining samples from water or soil is easy, but other habitats – such as the forest canopy – are difficult for researchers to access. As a result, many species remain untracked in poorly explored areas.

Researchers at ETH Zurich and the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research WSL, and the company SPYGEN have partnered to develop a special drone that can autonomously collect samples on tree branches.

(Video: ETH Zürich)

How the drone collects material

The drone is equipped with adhesive strips. When the aircraft lands on a branch, material from the branch sticks to these strips. Researchers can then extract DNA in the lab, analyse it and assign it to genetic matches of the various organisms using database comparisons.

But not all branches are the same: they vary in terms of their thickness and elasticity. Branches also bend and rebound when a drone lands on them. Programming the aircraft in such a way that it can still approach a branch autonomously and remain stable on it long enough to take samples was a major challenge for the roboticists.

“Landing on branches requires complex control,” explains Stefano Mintchev, Professor of Environmental Robotics at ETH Zurich and WSL. Initially, the drone does not know how flexible a branch is, so the researchers fitted it with a force sensing cage. This allows the drone to measure this factor at the scene and incorporate it into its flight manoeuvre.

Scheme: DNA is extracted from the collected branch material, amplified, sequenced and the sequences found are compared with databases. This allows the species to be identified. (Graphic: Stefano Mintchev / ETH Zürich)

Preparing rainforest operations at Zoo Zurich

Researchers have tested their new device on seven tree species. In the samples, they found DNA from 21 distinct groups of organisms, or taxa, including birds, mammals and insects. “This is encouraging, because it shows that the collection technique works,“ says Mintchev, who co-​authored the study that has appeared in the journal Science Robotics.

The researchers now want to improve their drone further to get it ready for a competition in which the aim is to detect as many different species as possible across 100 hectares of rainforest in Singapore in 24 hours.

To test the drone’s efficiency under conditions similar to those it will experience at the competition, Mintchev and his team are currently working at the Zoo Zurich’s Masoala Rainforest. “Here we have the advantage of knowing which species are present, which will help us to better assess how thorough we are in capturing all eDNA traces with this technique or if we’re missing something,“ Mintchev says.

For this event, however, the collection device must become more efficient and mobilize faster. In the tests in Switzerland, the drone collected material from seven trees in three days; in Singapore, it must be able to fly to and collect samples from ten times as many trees in just one day.

Collecting samples in a natural rainforest, however, presents the researchers with even tougher challenges. Frequent rain washes eDNA off surfaces, while wind and clouds impede drone operation. “We are therefore very curious to see whether our sampling method will also prove itself under extreme conditions in the tropics,” Mintchev says.

A continuum robot inspired by elephant trunks

Conventional robots based on separate joints do not always perform well in complex real-world tasks, particularly those that involve the dexterous manipulation of objects. Some roboticists have thus been trying to devise continuum robots, robotic platforms characterized by infinite degrees of freedom and no fixed number of joints.

Magnetic microrobot can measure both cell stiffness and traction

Scientists have developed a tiny mechanical probe that can measure the inherent stiffness of cells and tissues as well as the internal forces the cells generate and exert on one another. Their new "magnetic microrobot" is the first such probe to be able to quantify both properties, the researchers report, and will aid in understanding cellular processes associated with development and disease.

A person-shaped robot that can liquify and escape jail, all with the power of magnets

Inspired by sea cucumbers, engineers have designed miniature robots that rapidly and reversibly shift between liquid and solid states. On top of being able to shape-shift, the robots are magnetic and can conduct electricity. The researchers put the robots through an obstacle course of mobility and shape-morphing tests. Their study was published January 25 in the journal Matter.

A framework that allows four-legged robots to follow a leader in both daytime and nighttime conditions

Legged robots have significant advantages over wheeled and track-based robots, particularly when it comes to moving on different types of terrains. This makes them particularly favorable for missions that involve transporting goods or traveling from one place to another.

The robots of CES 2023

Robots were on the main expo floor at CES this year, and these weren’t just cool robots for marketing purposes. I’ve been tracking robots at CES for more than 10 years, watching the transition from robot toys to real robots. Increasing prominence has been given to self-driving cars, LiDARs and eVTOL drones, but, in my mind it was really the inclusion of John Deere and agricultural robots last year that confirmed that CES was incorporating more industry, more real machines, not just gadgets.
In fact, according to the organizing association CTA or the Consumer Technology Association, these days CES no longer stands for the Consumer Electronics Show. CES now just stands for CES, one of the world’s largest technology expos.

Eve from Halodi Robotics shakes hands at CES 2023 with Karinne Ramirez-Amaro, associate professor at Chalmers University of Technology and head of IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s Women in Engineering chapter. (Image source: Andra Keay)

Eve from Halodi Robotics shakes hands at CES 2023 with Karinne Ramirez-Amaro, associate professor at Chalmers University of Technology and head of IEEE Robotics and Automation Society’s Women in Engineering chapter. (Image source: Andra Keay)

The very first robot I saw was Eve from Halodi Robotics, exhibiting in the ADT Commercial booth. I am a big fan of this company. Not only do they have great robotics technology, which is very safe and collaborative, but I’ve watched them go from an angel funded startup to their first commercial deployments, providing 140 robots to ADT. One of their secrets has been spending the last year working closely with ADT to finetune the first production features of Eve, focusing on indoor security and working alongside people. In the future, Halodi has potential for many other applications including eldercare.

Another robot company (and robot) that I’m a big fan of is Labrador Robotics, and their mobile tray fetching robot for eldercare. Labrador exhibited their mobile robot in the AARP Innovation Lab pavilion, and are rolling out robots both in houses and in aged care facilities. There are two units pictured and the height of the platform can raise or lower depending on whether it needs to reach a countertop or fridge unit to retrieve items, like drinks and medications, or whether it needs to lower to become a bed or chair side table. These units can be commanded by voice, or tablet, or scheduled to travel around designated ‘bus stops’, using advanced localization and mapping. The team at Labrador have a wealth of experience at other consumer robotics companies.

Two Retrievers from Labrador Robotics in the AARP Innovation Lab Pavilion at CES 2023. (Image source: Andra Keay)

Two Retrievers from Labrador Robotics in the AARP Innovation Lab Pavilion at CES 2023. (Image source: Andra Keay)

I first met Sampriti Battacharya, pictured below with her autonomous electric boat, when she was still doing her robotics PhD at MIT, dreaming about starting her own company. Five short years later, she’s now the proud founder of Navier with not one but two working prototypes of the ‘boat of the future’. The Navier 30 is a 30’ long electric intelligent hydrofoil with a range of 75 nautical miles and a top speed of 35 knots. Not only is the electric hydrofoil 90% more energy efficient than traditional boats but it eliminates sea sickness with a super smooth ride. Sampriti’s planning to revolutionize public transport for cities that span waterways, like San Francisco or Boston or New York.

Navier’s ‘boat of the future’ with founder Sampriti Battacharya, plus an extra stowaway quadruped robot from Unitree. Image source: Andra Keay

Navier’s ‘boat of the future’ with founder Sampriti Battacharya, plus an extra stowaway quadruped robot from Unitree. Image source: Andra Keay

Another rapidly evolving robotics company is Yarbo. Starting out as a prototype snow blowing robot, after five years of solid R&D, Snowbot has evolved into the Yarbo modular family of smart yard tools. Imagine a smart docking mobile base which can be turned from a lawn mower to a snow blower or a leaf blower. It can navigate autonomously, and it’s electric of course.

And these robotics companies are making waves at CES. I met French startup Acwa Robotics earlier in 2022 and was so impressed that I nominated them as an IEEE Entrepreneurship Star. Water utilities around the world are faced with aging and damaged infrastructure, inaccessible underground pipes, responsible for huge amounts of water loss, road and building damage. Acwa’s intelligent robot travels inside the pipes without stopping water flow and provides rapid precisely localized inspection data that can pinpoint leaks, cracks and deterioration. Acwa was nominated for honors in the Smart Cities category and also won CES Best of Innovation Award.

Acwa Robotics and CES 2023 Best of Innovation Awards (Image Source: Acwa Robotics)

Acwa Robotics and CES 2023 Best of Innovation Awards (Image Source: Acwa Robotics)

Some other robotics companies and startups worth looking at were Apex.ai, Caterpillar, Unitree, Bosch Rexroth, Waymo, Zoox, Whill, Meropy, Artemis Robotics, Fluent Pet and Orangewood. Let me know who I missed! According to the app, 278 companies tagged themselves as Robotics, 73 as Drones, 514 as Vehicle Tech, and 722 as Startups, although I’d say the overall number of exhibitors and attendees was down on previous years although there were definitely more robots.

Soft robots harness viscous fluids for complex motions

One of the virtues of untethered soft robots is their ability to mechanically adapt to their surroundings and tasks, making them ideal for a range of roles, from tightening bolts in a factory to conducting deep-sea exploration. Now they are poised to become even more agile and controlled.

A method to enable robotic paper folding based on deep learning and physics simulations

To tackle different real-world tasks, robots should be able to handle and manipulate a variety of objects and materials, including paper. While roboticists have successfully improved the ability of humanoid robots or robotic grippers to handle several materials, paper folding remains a rarely explored topic within the robotics community.

Rotational multimaterial printing of helical filaments for soft robotics and structural composites

Materials in nature are rarely straight. In our bodies, proteins assemble into helical filaments which allow our muscles to contract. Plants change shape because cellulose fibers are arranged helically within their cell walls.
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