This past week I took a break from graduate school to go back to Anybots to help prepare for and run our booth at the Robo-Development Expo in San Jose California. We showed both Monty's manipulation ability including handing out business cards and interacting with the crowd and Dexter's brand new gait. The security attendants and the show told me that we were the most popular booth there which was very gratifying to hear along with many of the comments from the conference attendees. For our very first conference it went amazingly well. We almost made it through without a single technical failure, only having a component fail in Monty's right hand 3 hours before the end. It was also a good learning experience of what it takes to deploy our robots out of the lab and run Monty full blast all for two days.
There was a fare amount of press at the show and having the only full sized humanoid robots we attracted a lot of attention there too. Much of the press was nice, some not as much, since this is my blog though I'd like to make a couple of points from the insider's perspective. Of course a number of people were disappointed that Monty was tele-operated, a fact we never tried to hide, "man behind the curtain" jokes aside. I would have been disappointed and even disinterested because of that when I was focused on autonomy myself. Spending a lot of time on tele-operation, I really think that our incremental autonomy approach is the right path for useful robots right now.
Autonomy will be added as the technology to enable it matures. Right now the lowest level walking and two wheeled balancing is automated but the driver tells the robot where to go. The next level of autonomy might be having the robot navigate from place to place and notify the operator when it arrives so they can start work. I believe the iRobot Packbot uses something like this since path planing, obstacle avoidance, etc. are pretty well solved at this point. After that autonomy might assist the user by picking up objects automatically once the user puts the hand near by and signals the command. As the level of autonomy increases the number of robots which a single operator can control will increase. The main point is that we don't have to wait for high level autonomy to mature to develop robotic systems and make them practical.
The other thing I'd like to mention is our new gait for Dexter. A significant hardware and software update enabled us to develop a much more aggressive and robust walking gait. While it is still far from perfect, as Dexter fell down a number of times during the show, this gait takes more advantage of our dynamic walking techniques and our use of pneumatics. Unlike ASIMO or HRP-2 or other robots using ZMP to walk, we don't have to precalculate each step based on complete knowledge of the kinematics of the robot but, like a human, figure out during the step where the foot needs to go to keep from falling over. One advantage to this is that if we get pushed or pulled while walking, we don't just fall over. Dr. Blackwell demonstrated this by pulling Dexter backward while he was trying to walk forward, the result was that he walked backward but didn't fall over. Pneumatics is important for kind of walking for two reasons: first electric motors strong enough to support a robot can't move fast enough unless they are made huge and second because the aggressive motions of this gait would shock any gear train to death in minutes. Finally this new gait is a big step toward jogging or running. I can't wait to see how things have advanced when I come back full time in January.