Archive for category Home Robots

The robotics revolution is already started

WLMA robot in a home setting

WLMA robot in a home setting serving tea

Check out this great article from Bax & Williams:

It reads, in part, “we argued that whilst Bill Gates’ famous prediction hadn’t quite been realized thus far, we were fast approaching a tipping point for an age of robotics.”

One critical aspect of the Robotics Revolution is making sure that robots can work alongside people.  Industrial robots completely changed manufacturing, lowering Cost of goods Sold (COGS) and increasing quality.  But these robots are not safe around people; hundreds of workers are injured every year in industrial robot accidents.  Our security robots are designed ‘from the ground up’ to be safe around people – we even use them to serve food at parties!

Just this week, Dyson added itself to the list of global companies investing in robotics!  Check this article.

We are currently doing additional tests in a office building in Denver, CO. With robots running up and down the hallways along side the people working in the offices. To find out more about our testing give us a call +1 303-778-7400, or check out our website.

More to follow,


Where is your robot? Find out more info at Gamma 2 Robotics


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Autonomous Robot: What’s that mean?

We design and build autonomous security robots, and one of the questions we hear most often is “What does autonomous mean?” Autonomy is a tricky word. One can trace its roots back to ancient Greece, where, at the simplest, it meant the ability to say “no.” From that came the idea of self-rule or self-governance: the right to decide, for one’s self, what to do. It is a simple idea, and one that we take for granted as people. We have autonomy – the right to decide for ourselves what we will do next, and how we will do it. But how does that apply to a robot? In robots we think of autonomy as the ability to choose actions or behaviors in order to achieve some goal of the robot.

A couple of images come to mind when we think of robots: the bomb disposal robot on a newscast, the industrial welding robot we see in commercials assembling cars, perhaps a vacuum cleaning robot scurrying around the floor, and, of course, the movie robots like R2D2, or Wall-e. Each of these can be used to explore the idea of an autonomous robot. Around the lab, we break down these robots into four categories:

  1. tele-operation,
  2. programmatic,
  3. reactive, and
  4. autonomous.

Let’s look at these to see what makes them tick.

Tele-operation

Tele-operation sounds a lot more impressive than it is.  From the same roots as telescope: ‘far sight’, and telephone: ‘far sound’, we have ‘far control’.  Basically a tele-operated robot, like a bomb disposal robot, is like a big radio controlled car. The operator is at a distance from the robot, and can control every motion. For dangerous tasks (like bomb disposal) this keeps the people safe. This is a key task for robotics; to enable the robot to take risks rather than people.  Woods Hole submersible exploring the wreck of the TitanicWe use tele-operation on many high profile robotics systems – the rovers on Mars rely on instructions from Earth, the drones flying over war zones receive control commands from thousands of miles away, and the deep-sea submersibles exploring the oceans under water pressures that would kill a person are driven by operators in shirt sleeves thousands of feet above on the surface.

However, there is a drawback.  Without those second by second control signals, the robot sits like a lump. It does nothing on its own, it requires constant control. So, while we keep the operator at a safe distance, we do not get the benefit of reducing the workload.  In fact, for many tele-operated systems the workload is increased. It can take as many as three or four operators to keep a drone flying and doing its job. Because it relies on the human operators understanding the situation, making decisions, planning the next steps and then executing that plan by sending control signals to the robot. That is the trade-off of tele-operated robots.  So, these robots have almost no autonomy, they do what they are told with little or no self-governance. Note: several of these robots have limited safety systems that can over-ride commands that will put them in danger, but that is about it.

Pre-programmed

At the opposite end of the spectrum are the industrial robots that have made such a huge impact on modern manufacturing. These robots, once they are programmed, require little or no supervision.  They just work. They work day in and day out, doing the same thing over, and over, and over again. This is the kind of thing that we want robots to do, relieve us of the deadly, dull tedium of doing the same thing over and over. And they work.  In a recent study by the International Federation of Robotics, there are over 1.4 million robots at work in our factories, producing our goods. This is a job that robots are really, really good at doing.

Auto assembly line with robots

Auto assembly line with robots

However, here to is a downside.  The robots work really well at routine, tightly defined tasks.  But to enable them to work, they need to be in a very tightly controlled environment. Because they are pre-programmed to do the same thing over and over, they cannot react to any changes.

This has resulted in numerous accidents, and even deaths, resulting from a person being in the workspace of the robot (the envelope) when the robot was moving.  This is also why we have not seen a breakthrough in service robots like that in industrial robots.  The human environments: homes, shops, offices, etc. cannot be as tightly controlled as a factory floor. In human ‘workspaces’ constant change is the order of the day, and pre-programmed robots are unable to react to those changes. As far as autonomy goes, as far as having the ability to say ‘no’, these robots have none, and that is what makes them potentially dangerous.

Reactive System

‘Reactive system’ is a term associated with Rodney Brooks, a co-founder of i-Robot. A reactive system is one that does not follow a rigid sequence of pre-programmed steps, rather it senses the world on a moment by moment basis and selects a behavior. This behavior remains in effect until the sensors show a state that requires a different behavior.

As an example, imagine a robotic vacuum cleaner. When activated it starts a behavior that says go forward 10 feet. When the sensors show 10 feet traveled it starts a behavior that causes it to execute a spiral pattern, cleaning the floor. When a sensor indicates an obstacle, it turns until clear, the goes in a straight line until the next obstacle, this repeats, and repeats.  This behavior (known as a drunkard’s walk) will, eventually, cover the floor, and all will be clean. When the sensors indicate a low battery, the robot turns until it detects the home beacon, then heads for home to recharge.  No real plan, no idea what it is doing, but what the robot does next is totally under the control of the reactive behaviors. So, is this autonomy?

That is a surprisingly tricky question. Clearly, the robot is not under direct control. Nor is it mindlessly following a step by step set of instructions. But, neither is there any ability to say ‘no,’ no ability to choose a behavior. In one sense, this robot is exactly like an industrial robot, except that the pre-programmed actions are triggered by immediate sensor data, rather than by a strict sequence.

Autonomous Robot

So, what is an autonomous robot?  An autonomous robot can make decisions based on the current goals, and the current situation. We will use our security robots as an example, since we are very familiar with them.

Suppose that you are in charge of security for a warehouse, and you have a Vigilus(tm) security robot on duty. Every night, from 11pm until 7am it does security patrols, carrying a camera and sensors around the warehouse. Then, one night, there is a problem down at the loading dock. You need the security robot down there carrying all its sensors and gear. You simple command tells the robot “Go to the Loading Dock,” and the security robot is on its way.

Robot patrolling the receiving dock, and monitoring changing temperatures.

Robot patrolling the receiving dock, and monitoring changing temperatures.

Unlike a tele-operated robot, you don’t have to drive it there, you just tell it to go, and it figures out the best way to get there. It knows where it is, so it can look at hundreds of different possible routes to take, and select one. It can keep track of changes that might affect its travel, and reject a route that requires going through a congested hallway. Once it picks a route, it drives itself – no one needs to run a joystick or a game controller. Along the way it monitors what is going on. If there are problems (perhaps someone left a chair in the middle of the room), it decides what to do: go around the chair, maybe push the chair out of the way, or plan a different route that does not go through this room at all. If it can’t figure out a way to meet the goal it was given, it can decide to try again, or to call for help.

In short, an intelligent autonomous robot acts sort of like you would expect a teammate to work. If you give it a task, it will try to get the task done, using its model of the way things are, and its model of the things it knows how to do to come up with a plan, and carry it out.

So, it differs from the other types of robots in key ways, ways that make it more useful:

  1. Unlike a tele-operated robot, it doesn’t need a driver – it acts on its own,
  2. Unlike a pre-programmed robot, it can deal with a dynamic, changing world, and
  3. Unlike a reactive system, it builds a model of the world, and plans out actions to achieve its goals.
Next up:  Why do you want an autonomous robot.

Where is your robot?  Ours are being built by Gamma Two Robotics, here in Colorado.

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What is it about Killer Robot Overlords?

We were doing a presentation this week, at an angel investor meetup. The presentation on our security robot business model went well, although their format forced us to use only 5 minutes. So we spent hours paring down the words to fit into 300 seconds. A great exercise, and well worth the effort. Of course, after the lightning speed presentation, came the questions.

I enjoy the questions, I like the back and forth that occurs – it is more like a conversation than a lecture. But there is a moment I dread. It almost always comes up towards the end of the question period, and, perhaps, I am to blame. I do not come across as a formal speaker, I think that we communicate more effectively if we can communicate informally. I think that that mode encourages thought and engagement, and opens pathways for a more free-ranging conversation. Which, when talking about intelligent, autonomous robots, seems to lead, inevitably, to the question.

It takes many forms, depending on the speaker and their cultural refferents, but the thrust is always the same: What about Killer Robot Overlords? This night it was in the Terminator motif; “Jim, what if the robots ask ‘Where is Sarah Connor?’” If the speaker was older it might have been a direct Terminator reference, or perhaps “Klaatu barada nikto”

But, regardless of the exact form of the question, it always comes down to “What about Killer Robot Overlords?” It is kind of weird, I mean, we build robots – design their brains, I know just how smart they are. And they are a looong way from being as smart as a person. But, more importantly, why would they become killer robots? Of course, we, as people, are simply projecting our fears of technology and change onto the hardware. But where did it come from?

Robots have not been with us very long, but the idea of robots is very old.  It goes back beyond the word “robot” which came into use in the 1920’s. The first use of the word is generally ascribed to Karl Capec’s play “R. U. R. – Rossum’s Universal Robots” in which humanoid autonoma were used as workers, and eventually rebelled.  This was generally believed to be an extension of the Jewish Golem mythos – servants crafted out of clay and instilled with pseudo-life. The servant rebellion was a common theme, which, when brought to robots, leads to the robot rebellion, which seems to inevitably lead to killer robot overlords.  But even this model is a relative newcomer.

In the Greek mythos, Hephestus, the blacksmith to the gods, manufactured robotic carts that carried food and drink around the home.

WLMA robot in a home setting

WLMA robot in a home setting serving tea

Here is photo of one of our robots doing a job that has been around for perhaps 3000 years. In addition, Hephestus made robotic ‘golden maidens’ to work the parties as well.  No sense of Robottic Overlords in ancient Greece, these were reliable, helpful assistents, that help people (well the Gods at least) live better lives.

So, that is the concept that leads us to our vision:

Creating a world in which people live better lives assisted by affordable, reliable, helpful robots.

No killer robot overlords will come out of our shop.

Where is your robot? Ours are be made by Gamma Two Robotics

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The Snow Shovelling Robot (Part 2)

The snow is still falling, the walk isn’t cleared, and the robot is dripping melting snow onto the garage floor. I have a fresh pot of tea (Nilgiri black, from Mark T. Wendell teas) steaming on the drawing table, along with a home-made English muffin with honey and butter.

Ahhhhhhhh! Paradise.

What was I doing again? Oh yeah, the Snow Shovelling Robot.

So, previously we tried the snow-blower, and the plow. Now it is time to get serious. A snow shovelling robot should shovel snow. How hard can it be?  10 year old kids can do this. Take a shovel, stick it in the snow, toss it away, repeat. Easy. We can take a shovel, and cut down the handle. Attach it to the robot, and add a mechanism to stick it horizontally into the snow. Add another mechanism to lift the shovel blade, and another one to fling the snow off to the side. The robot moves forward, and the process repeats. Where’s my pencil?

I’m sure you can envision the Snow Shovelling Robot: tank treads, front mounted arm, with a shovel blade, electronics, servo-motors, pneumatic cylinders driving the tossing mechanism, possibly even a steam tank to keep the blade from freezing up.  A total steam-punk fantasy. Now we are ready to roll!  Except for the hard part, the brains.

Don’t get me wrong, the mechanical system is complex, and requires serious engineering. I’m sure any number of mechatronics engineers were having a chuckle at the obvious mechanical errors expounded in the previous post. But that is my point – they were obvious errors. If you look at the hundreds of existing robotics systems in the world today, you will see mechanical, electrical, pneumo-hydrolic marvels doing work in bomb disposal, deep sea exploration, flight systems, everything!  But the vast majority of them require a person to drive them around; a person to make sense of the environment by looking through the sensors; a person to decide what to do; and a person to execute the plan using the joysticks, game controllers, and switches on the console. In fact in systems like the Predator drones, it literally can require three or four people to fly the mission.

Right now, it is a person making the hundreds of judgement calls needed to actually do something useful, like shovelling the sidewalk. “What?” you say, “Judgement calls about shovelling?”  Actually, yes.

A judgement call is a decision that is made dependent on the situation, and frequently without complete knowledge. Think about the types of decisions:

  • How big a ‘bite’ of snow to take,
  • Where to toss it,
  • How best to get the snow off the shovel blade,
  • What to do when the snow sticks,
  • How best to get the shovel blade down to the concrete, without jamming it into a crack, and so on.

And all of these decisions, are being made in real time, you’ve got maybe 3 seconds per ‘shovel operation’. And, these decisions are being made without complete information. You don’t know the ‘stickiness’ of the snow, as you move down the sidewalk, when is the snow you are tossing getting too close to the neighbor’s car? Do you break your rhythm to clean the blade, or risk having the shovel fly out of your grip when the snow doesn’t let go?

And our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to get a computer to do all this, while controlling the robot.

And, perhaps the most daunting aspect of all, is we don’t really understand how ‘we’ as humans make these decisions. If you asked people how they decide how big a ‘bite’ of snow to shovel, you’ll get answers like “the feel is right”, or “I just kind of eyeball it”, or (my favorite) “When you’ve been shovelling snow as long as I have, you just know.”  Program that into your robot.  The odd thing is, according to a number of current cognitive science theories each of these answers is exactly right.

3 pm the snow picks up. Where is the Snow Shoveling Robot?

3 pm the snow picks up. Where is the Snow Shoveling Robot?

There are two competing truisms: 1) if you can’t explain how to do something, you can’t program a computer to do it, 2) the act of explaining how you do something frequently changes the process that you are trying to explain.  Sure, there are exceptions to both of these ‘rules’, but they hold most of the time. This is why you don’t have a snow shovelling robot. It’s not the hardware, the mechatronics engineers are giving us great hardware, we are still working on how to ‘tell’ the hardware what to do. For a more detailed analysis you can check out our book “Robots, Reasoning, and Reification”

The short form is that the robot needs to map the current situation into a model of the world (the reification part), and then have behaviors it can execute (the robot part), and it has to select the appropriate behaviors (the reasoning part) as the situation changes.

It becomes a dance of a sort.  A three step figure:

  • Figure out what aspects of the shovelling process can be reduced to pre-programmed ‘muscle memory’ – behaviors that can be re-played in specific situations.
  • Figure out when to ‘re-play’ those behaviors – what are the circumstances in which those behaviors are the appropriate behaviors
  • Figure out how to stitch those together into a pattern that ends up with the snow off the sidewalk, and not on the neighbors car.

To do that we need data – Well, the snow is picking up again, so I need to get up, grab the shovel, and start shovelling. Looks like, for this storm anyway, I am the Snow Shovelling Robot.

Where’s your Robot?  Ours are being built by Gamma Two Robotics, here in (snowy) Colorado.

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Brother, can you spare a dime – for a robot?

In many ways, the state of robotics in the first part of the 21st century is a lot like the state of automobiles in the first part of the 20th century:

'97 Winton, loaded down with six occupants

This car set a record for carrying 6 occupants around a 1 mile track at 33 MPH

  • There weren’t a lot of cars,
  • Cars didn’t do very much,
  • Cars were mostly a status symbol, and
  • Cars required a full time technician to keep them running.

But cars had the promise of being useful, the promise of changing the very fabric of our lives. And, little by little they were adopted. It is hard to imagine now living without cars and trucks.  We depend on them to move us about, deliver our food, move raw materials to the factories and the finished products to our stores. Our cities literally would collapse if cars and trucks were to vanish in the blink of an eye.  Will it be the same for domestic robots?

Since the 1950’s we have been enthralled with the idea of domestic robots. Whether it was in outer space or here on earth, robots have featured prominently in science fiction, popular movies, and television shows. In many cases these robots worked around the house, making lives better.

In a recent survey, 41% of respondents said that they would be willing to get a loan to pay for a domestic robot. Provided that it was useful. What defined useful?  Well there was quite a laundry list (speaking of which, laundry was on the list).  Topping the list was carrying heavy things around the house, and providing home security. These are key benefits that Gamma Two Robotics also identifies, especially for the age-in-place and home assistance markets.

a living room with a robot entering, carrying a tea pot.

Gamma Two BSL series robot, delivers tea.

In addition were requirements  like:

  • house cleaning
  • acting as a reminder system
  • baby sitters, and assistance for the elderly

Over all, 68% of the respondents indicated that they thought a domestic robot could be useful, and only 29% said that they would not consider buying a robot, even if it provided service.  This is absolutely in line with a number of studies that have been released lately. In one, kids were asked to describe the world they would inhabit when they were adults. Across the board, this world was populated by friendly, companionable robots. In another study, school kids describe the robots acting as teachers, helping them with math, and homework, as well as being a companion.

Our vision is to create a world in which people live better lives, assisted by affordable. reliable, helpful robots. This will only work if people actually want robots in there lives, so all of these surveys are reassuring. But the robots have to be useful.  If they are not making lives better, they are great as status symbols, they might be excellent conversation topics, but they won’t really be helping.

So I applaud those people who say “Yeah, I’d consider getting a loan to pay for a service robot.”  But I really applaud those people who say “But, it can’t be a toy; it has to be useful.”

Where’s your robot? Ours are being built by Gamma Two Robotics, here in Colorado

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