IROS 2011 – The Robots Rule San Francisco

IROS 2011
Welcome to IROS 2011.

For the past few days I’ve been hanging out with robots. I know, I know, how is that different than normal? Well, this time the bots in question were the stars of IROS 2011, the Intelligent Robots and Systems conference held this year here in San Francisco. A week long session jointly sponsored by IEEE and the Robotic Society of Japan, IROS is one of the premier gatherings of the robotic community. Most of the big names were in town, and many of the smaller names too, looking to showcase their metal children and all they could do. Check out some of the many machines on display on the exhibition floor in my summary video below. This year’s IROS was evidence of three key trends: robotics is firmly expanding into service applications, partnerships and open source cooperation are fueling growth in the industry, and robots can’t get enough of the Kinect sensor.

The exhibition floor is the heart of IROS, with most of the big name companies putting on continuous demonstrations of their best robots and engineers. From Honda’s ASIMO to Willow Garage’s PR2 to Ascending Technologies quadrotors, the floor is always buzzing with activity.

While all the robots on the exhibition floor were top notch, a few deserve a little further discussion. DARPA’s Autonomous Robot Manipulation (ARM) project wasn’t actually on location, but their engineers had a simulator up and running that would connect you to the ARM remotely. The ARM project is open for virtually anyone to participate in. Simply go to the ARM site, download the simulator, develop your own code, and submit it to be tried out on the real robot. DARPA hopes to generate a lot of interest in this platform as part of a more general approach to raising awareness/enthusiasm for robotics (the ARM will soon be part of a kickass exhibit in the Smithsonian as well). More serious development from a few dozen partners will enable ARM to have a meaningful impact on manipulation code as well. Here’s a quick look at what the ARM can do (not from IROS 2011):

I was happy to see that Willow Garage had finally given their new Turtlebot platform a manipulating arm. Meant as an entry level robot for open source hobbyist/intermediate developers, Turtlebot is a great opportunity to help train and educate the next generation of robot engineers. With a reasonable price tag (~$1200) Turtlebot is well within reach of many schools. And now there’s more in Turtlebot’s reach too. The new arm costs about $400 to buy, but it’s open hardware (besides the servos) and you can find out how to build your own on Make. The speed, strength, and range of this arm aren’t thrilling (as you’ll see in the video below), but it is exciting to see Turtlebot expanding towards a more complete platform.

A miniature version of Festo’s pneumatic arm modeled on an elephant’s trunk was on display. Representatives told me that the arm would be offered to universities at cost (~$15k USD) to help stimulate development and applications. Pliable but firm, the Festo mini-elephant arm was really fun to play with.

Of course, the exhibition floor may be the heart of IROS, but it’s not the brain. The details of the real science are shared during the numerous small presentations and forums that take place over the week. Trying to summarize all that happened during the 100+ sessions is folly, but most simply represented incremental steps forward in robotics. A slightly better algorithm for pattern recognition, a better command sequence for swarms, etc. If there was one trend that really caught me eye it was the enthusiasm for service applications. The Google car team got a very warm reception, Kuka affirmed it was going to leverage its industrial expertise into health and home care, and discussions on human robot interaction were well attended. Everyone seemed excited about either researching how robots may help humans, or developing real machines to enter that field in the next few years. It’s a little early to say that the robotics industry is shifting towards human service (such applications are still firmly in research, honestly) but there’s little doubt that people are now willing and open about their ambitions in that direction. Whereas previously such projects were always described as “eventually part of the plan” now they’re more “in the next five years”. Such statements are optimistic, no doubt, but they’re still good to hear.

I was also encouraged by the steady presence of open source software. Willow Garage was a big influence (there were four of their open source PR2 robots on the exhibition floor) but the library they champion, ROS, was hardly the only such resource represented. OpenCV was practically everywhere it seemed. The robotics industry is still rife with lab-specific software and hardware. Many of the teams create their robots (code and body) from scratch. Yet more and more I’m seeing people adopting platforms that allow them to get a jump start on research by adopting standardized software and hardware. Whether that’s ROS, OpenCV, etc for code, or the PR2, DARwIn-OP, or Ascending Technologies’ quadrotors, etc for hardware doesn’t matter – the tide is rising.

The final thing to mention about IROS is something which hints at both the growing standardization and the hope that small disruptions can lead to rapid development. The Kinetc 3D sensor was everywhere. Go back to the exhibition floor video and look for it – almost every robot from ASIMO to the Kuka sword fighter was using Kinect. Off the exhibition floor, dozens of experiments seen in the small sessions utilized the cheap, well understood device in their research. We’ve seen plenty of examples of Kinect in robotics, but the device’s presence at IROS was so widespread that it could practically be assumed (or at least it certainly seemed that way). The lesson from the Kinect is that even an industry as diverse as robotics is still susceptible to change from a single new idea. That’s a good thing. When someone comes up with something that really works, it will become a de facto standard. Hopefully we’ll see many more such innovations in the next year.

Until IROS 2012 rolls around, rest assured Singularity Hub will work hard to keep you up to date on all the latest in robotics news. Honestly, we’d be hanging out with the robots anyway.

[screen capture: Aaron Saenz/SingularityHub]