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25 July

On Thursday we did a big pool trial testing out some new human-robot interaction software that Junaed, in particular, has been developing. In addition, we tested out a couple on not-yet-autonomous surface vehicles. Everything went very well.

Almost all the students and employees in my lab were able to make it, so we have a biggish crew of about 16 people plus a few additional visitors and family members. This proved very helpful since we had a lot of gear to carry in an deploy, including scuba equipment for people who could stay down and either observe the robot or interact with it.

The boats also fared nicely and I think, for once, every single experiment came off well. That seems impossibly good; I hope nothing got lost or damaged on the way home.

One of the great side benefits of in-the-field robotics experiments is that they are excellent social events bonding everybody together by the shared objectives (and occasional hardships). It's a bit like a sports team in that way. In fact, I think the level mutual support and good sprits seems to be at a local maximum and it's an honor to be part of it. Of course the downside is that such substantial effort and infrastructure is required to do this kind of work, but that kind of tradeoff is the way of the world.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
26 August

I had the honor of speaking at a working at MIT yesterday on the testing of robotics systems. My own talk was heavily based our experiences testing our robotic boat, robot plane and underwater vehicles. The field trials we do involve a range of challenges in terms of experiment planning, but also including logistics, safety and team management.

The workshop overall was motivated by a project called PATFrame that deals with understanding and optimizing test planning, especially for large military-sponsored robotics projects. Other participants from the US government and military spoke about the challenges of testing adaptive systems that both change over time, and also exhibit performance which depends on (variable) features of the environment. In short, it is essentially impossible to cover al possible conditions when a system is so versatile and complex.

As intelligent systems gradually approach the complexity and richness of humans, testing them definitively will become as tricky as testing people. Even when you think you know a person very well, they can exhibit surprising behavior and there is no way to preclude the same phenomena from robotics systems. This poses a challenge not only for testers, but for society at large.

Robot Attack
Robot Attack: did we test it enough

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08 September

Telepresence has been a research topics for at least a couple of decades and plays an important role in several kinds of scientific exploration, notably undersea and in outer space. Recently, the use of telepresence was features in the New York Times, perhaps potentiated by the movie Avatar.

The article is entitled "The Boss Is Robotic, and Rolling Up Behind You" and the link is:


and it discusses the use of mobile (wheeled)
robotic telepresence to attend meetings at the workplace while your
physical body is geographically removed.

I am not sure of a lot of scientific (i.e. conclusive) evidence for mobile telepresence being better than static screens, but it is both somewhat
intuitive and also a commonly held belief in the robotics community.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
25 September

Last week the Workshop on Autonomy for Maritime Robotics took place
at Dalhousie University, sponsored by Defense Research and
Development Canada. There were various kinds of people there talking about robotics at sea, including people who worked on the detection of mines at sea, businesses that build sonar sensors, people who worry about based scientific questions, and government sponsors. My own talk dealt with several mrine robotics projects at McGill including the Aqua Project.

The application that got the most play was the detection of sunken mines at sea. There were presentations from government-sponsored labs in the USA and Canada on imaging these mines using sonar and recognizing them. We didn't hear much about the vehicles being used for these applications, but I inferred that they are pretty "standard" undersea robots such as the IVUR2.

There were two presentations from the lab of Ralf Bachmayer and his colleagues at MUN on scientific applications related to profiling the bottoms of ice bergs or ice flows; these were probably the most challenging and scientifically provocative things that came up. As I have mentioned in this blog before, they use sea gliders to collect data on time scales from hours to weeks. He talked about one experiment when their sea glider got caught on the bottom of an ice berg and stayed there much longer than expected, before fortuitously popping out again.

As one might expect, the huge logistic challenges of operating robots at sea, and particularly autonomous robots, influences the kinds of things that can be done. Moreover, the robots them selves are expensive and resource-constrained. On the other hand, there are lots of great scientific and technical challenges specific to this domain, if you have the funding, the nerve and are willing to build the infrastructure. As Ralf put it, "it's not a question of if you will lose a robot, but when." Luckily, neither his group nor mine has lost one yet (although we have come pretty close with a broken seal on a vehicle).

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
21 October

One of many meetings at the IROS conference in Taipei, Taiwan

The IROS conference organizing committee dinner took place at the top of the Taiwan 101 building, which was very classy and pleasant. It is one of the tallest buildings is the world (and used to be the tallest of all not so long ago). A lot of people worked hard to make the conference a success and many of them were at the dinner.

I chatted with, and sat with, some old friends (like Martin Buehler and Raja Chatila) and made some new friends (like Steve Cousins) and generally had a good time. The continual rain even cleared up for a while and we got a view out over Taipei. We also heard about the history of IROS over the last two decades or so since it was founded.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
08 January

My quick visit to India

In late December I had a chance to attend the International Symposium on Robotics Research (ISER) in New Delhi, India. We presented our work on human-robot interaction, a paper co-authored by my student Junaed Sattar and myself that dealt with the value and positive impact of allowing a robot to ask questions when it was given commands that it was unsure about.

ISER 2010

ISER is a relatively small meeting that attracts a good number of high quality papers and well-established people. Since it is a less-visible meeting, the work that shows up there is sometimes less mature and perhaps more exploratory than what appears at, say, RSS and so you can get a view of upcoming ideas before they hit the mainstream. In addition, for groups like ours that have a particular interest in experimental issues, it is a valuable venue.

This year it seemed that there was increased attention to issues of interaction between robotic systems and humans, a trend that has been occurring across several venues. This is symptomatic of the fact that robotic systems are become more and more potentially useful in practice.


Greg and Humayun's Tomb, India

Visiting India was both a huge boon, since I have always wanted to go there, and also a huge chore since it takes a lot of time, money and energy to make such a trip. I was only able to spend a few days on the subcontinent, but managed to visit the Taj Mahal, shop on the incredibly energetic Chadni Chowk in Old Delhi, and see a couple of other impressive sights.

Chadni Chowk is a major shopping street in Old Delhi. It is often listed as one of the "sights to see," but it is very much not a touristic venue. I walked it's length one day (despite brutal jet lag) and don't think I saw another person who was conspicuously a tourist. Most of the stores open in the late morning or early afternoon and by 3pm things are very very busy. The sidewalk is jam packed and using it means being jostled frequently and often obstructed by either a delivery, a mess on the sidewalk, or some other event. Many people use the edges of the road to walk, but this involves contenting with deliver carts, water buffalo, auto-rickshaws, bicycles, cars and even the odd truck. It's exciting but requires constant alertness to avoid getting into an accident. For a single guy it's great, but i would think twice before doing it as a single female tourist or with youngsters.

Shopping street: Chadni Chowk, Old Delhi

Getting a genuinely good deal shopping on Chadni Chowk probably depends on not looking conspicuously like a tourist: that's not an option for most visitors. Not only is skin color a factor, but when I was there with a friend the mere fact that his Hindi didn't "sound right" marked him as somebody who should pay elevated prices. This doesn't mean that as a visitor you shouldn't bargain, or that you won't get a good price for things you buy, it's simply that you won't get as good a price as the local people. Given the difference is standards of living between India and Canada, that's seems fair to me. Moreover, my impression that that even a moderate deal on Chadni Chowk is comparable to the prices in more touristic stores: the key thing, as with any bargaining, is to have some idea what you are asking for, and what kinds of price you should be seeking.

One of the striking features of India, based on my superficial visit, is the extreme contrasts between splendor and ugliness, poverty and richness, and the multi-layered diversity of ... well, everything! Even the electrical wires in Old Delhi exemplify this, as there are layers and layers of wires that have been successively imposed. Normally we rant about the wiring in some of our facilities, so the photo below should be an object lesson regarding how lucky we really are.

Crazy wiring in Old Delhi, India

Jamas Masjid Mosque designed by Ustad Khalil
and featuring 130 ft tall minarets

By Gregory Dudek at | Read (1) or Leave a comment |    
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