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Entries : Category [ Robotics ]
Articles about robots and robotics.
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09 February
2013

Yesterday Feb 8th saw he official announcement of the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network, the NCFRN. The announcement was made by Canadian Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, at a press conference at McGIll University. I'm the Director of the Network and some of the people who also spoke at the conference included Senator Larry Smith, the Principal of McGIll, the VP of Research and International Relations and Janet Walden, the VP of Research Partnerships of NSERC. Minister Goodyear has been a supported of Canadian science and his government has supported science research in several ways, Larry Smith is, among other things, the former published of the Montreal Gazette newspaper, the Commissioner of the Canadian Football League, and deputy Chair of the National Finance Committee of the Federal Government.

The NCFRN is a network that brings together university research teams, companies with an interest in robotics research, and not-for-profit organizations. Specifically, our network will address issues of autonomous data collection, environment modelling, positioning, navigation, detection and planning. These core competencies, and the software infrastructure that supports them, are the basis of key robotics applications that are of broad economic and scientific relevance. The Federal government is putting in millions of dollars in cash which is mainly distributed amoung the university partners to support graduate students. The industry partners are, among other things, supplying internship and access to their faculties. In Canada, graduate student tuition and support costs are extremely low by world standards, so this grant will have a huge impact. In other words a million dollars in Canadian graduate student support might be akin to 10 million is the USA, both in terms of the impact is has and the ease of obtaining it.

Outdoor environments are among the places where robots have the greatest potential, especially in the Canadian context. Robotic systems can be the key to monitoring and maintaining the state of our environmental heritage, performing border patrol to assure the integrity of our borders, testing the quality of our air and water, or even dealing with environmental disaster, nuclear accidents, toxic waste or search and rescue operations. These applications depend, however, on using teams of robots and combining different robotics technologies and, in some cases, different types of robot to effectively cover the diversity that is found in the natural world. Together, the participants will identify the common challenges and approaches that will allow robotic systems to operate for extended periods in a range of domains. Putting this into practice involves both addressing scientific challenges to build and extend algorithms and solution techniques, but also the development of software tools and methods to allow these techniques to be deployed in real systems that can work outside a controlled laboratory environment.

Robotics as a scientific field of study has made enormous progress in the last 15 years and there are few people who, after a little reflection, do not envision a world where robotic systems will be commonplace 25 years from now. Robotic subsystems and technologies are already in widespread use in devices spanning dishwashers, cell phones, automobiles and home security systems, while fully robotic systems are in use today in a range of application areas including explosive ordnance disposal, remote surveillance and flexible assembly. Robots have transformed manufacturing in the last 25 years.
We, along with our international colleagues, are working to transform outdoor work in the next 25.

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Footnote: US and Canadian funding for basic research is very different. In both counties, a major way to spend money in Computer Science, Math and related disciplines is on graduate student support. The USA has a lot of other funding sources and uses that of a mix of different programs. While it's a bit of an Apples-to-oranges comparison, in the USA the NSF uses a budget of about $8B to support roughly 20% of all basic science research, while in Canada NSERC uses a budget of about $1B to support almost all basic research in a similar subset of the sciences.


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
21 June
2014

The International Conference on Robotics and Automation 2014

The International Conference on Robotics and Automation took place in Hong Kong the week before last and with a few of my students I was able to attend (and we present four papers on our work). Each year this conference gets bigger, and this year there were over 2,000 attendees, which is probably symptomatic of the growing importance and impact of robotics today. There were 19 parallel tracks meaning that for any single attendee there was a good chance there was more than one talk of interest going on at any given moment. On one hand this is bad, since it make it impossible to hear all the relevant talks. On the other hand, it was a lot better than squeezing all the talks into a smaller number of tracks and giving them insufficient time to present the results gully. In short, given the growth in the field, I though this was a good compromise.

Computational and algorithmic issues continue to be the key, and perhaps even growing, theme in robotics, as opposed to the also import issues of mechanism design, dynamics etc. There were several nice talks (and papers) on using computer vision to address issues in robotics. Vision and robotics used to be joined together under the once-ill-defined umbrella of artificial intelligence. Those areas separated into different communities well over a decade ago, but as each matures the links are begging to re-emerge. It is about time to see the areas coming together again. In fact, I think there is a sound argument to be made that vision and AI are both best regarded as sub-fields of robotics, which is the amorphous umbrella that captures humanityís efforts to replication human and biological capabilities with all the sub-themes interacting. Thus, vision in the context of robotics is become more and more important and mature. Underwater robotics is also a theme of growing prominence, as is the combination of sensing and manipulation.

Hong Kong 2014 ICRA trip
Hong Kong 2014 ICRA trip
(Click to expand)
http://www.dudek.org/blog/blogpics/hong_kong_buildings_2014.jpg
Hong Kong buildings on Queen's Road




While in Hong Kong I had a chance to do a tiny bit of sight seeing, including a great trip to the Mainland China city of Shenzhen. Shenzhen is a key industrial center, and the place where many of todayís consumer electronics are fabricated. The abundance of electrics manufacturing, development and prototyping was really impressive. I have often observed that Silicon Valley (where I once lived) has good resources for electronics prototyping and technology development. In Japan, however, the popular level of access and appreciation to such activities is much greater, and in a big department store one can find real beakers, test tubes and soldering irons beside the toys, dresses and dishware (then this is good quality scientific material, not just kiddie-toy stuff that one finds in Montreal). Well, at least for electronics Shenzhen takes this trends to a far far far higher level, with a plethora of devices, tools, resources so tremendously available and accessible that any comparison with North America is almost laughable. It was cool, fun, impressive and maybe a bit frightening. As for the regarding to items and ideas that are supposed to be protected by intellectual property legislation, thatís also an interesting story.

All in all, Hong Kong and Shenzhen combined a top robotics conference with a very educational little outing to where the consumer electronics world has its nexus. In addition, I got to see a few great sights and eat some delicious (and sometimes challenging) food.

Recovered phone circuit boards, possible for use in bootleg clones
Recovered phone circuit boards,
possibly for use in bootleg clones
(Click to expand)
Shopping in Shenzhen
Shopping in Shenzhen
(Click to expand)



By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
15 November
2014

The Canadian Robotics Today workshop sponsored by Mathworks and NSERC

On the advice of a couple of the board members for our robotics network, I tried organizing a new workshop on robotics to build bridges to and between robotics companies that had no prior history of substantive interaction. While I have organized various kinds of meetings and events in the past, this one posed some novel challenges. This was executed with the help of my staff (Isabelle) and one of my students (Travis) who did all kinds of things to help the event move forward.

Most of the large-scale organizing I have done before has been related to a pre-existing communities, for example organizing one year's incarnation of an annual conference. Even when I have previously organized a new kind of meeting, the constituency has always been developed first (for example by creating a new organization like the field robotics network, where our first meetings already had a set of members who were expected to attend). This time, the focus of the workshop was to initiate the creation of a new community, and so doing the required outreach and organizing was far more demanding and unpredictable than I had experienced before.

I know that for our big conferences a lot of people register late, but since most academic conferences that I participate in are based on reviewed papers, we always have an estimate of attendance from the number of accepted papers. In this case, there are no papers and a few weeks before the workshop the attendance figures looked pretty worrisome. Now that the registrations have picked up and things are on track I am eagerly anticipating the event and some excellent discussions and keynote speakers, but for a while there I was losing sleep over how it work out. Of course, the kind of anxiety and uncertainty can be a spur to activity and creativity, and there are few professional activities I engage in that don't have at least some measure of fear and anxiety associated with them, even if it's just giving a lecture in one of the classes I teach. Too much stress, of course, can be destructive, exhausting and counter-productive. I think a typical academic, at least at the universities I know well, is constantly on boundary edge between the productive levels of incentivizing stress and the excessive overloading kind.




www.CanadianRoboticsToday.com


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
21 June
2015

Annual outdoor robot trails and meeting in Kelowna

Last week we held our annual meeting and joint field trials for the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN). The trials are designed to
explore and test the capacities of novel robotics technologies. We had teams these testing robots that could sail, drive off-road and fly.

The event included research teams from around 20 Canadian universities including McGill University, the University of Alberta, Simon Fraser University, and Memorial University among many others. Industrial partners from Aeryon Labs (makers of unmanned aerial vehicles), Crosswing, (telepresence), and Kinsol Research (radio communications and sensor networks) will also be present and available for interviews.

Among other things, Malika led our student team doing mock search and rescue using the Kingfisher, and after the normal false starts and glitches, we got some solid data and everybody ended happy. We also collected some data using the new Velodyne Puck device which seems very cool and pretty easy to use.


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
27 June
2015

Reflections on the grwoth of robotics and notes from ICRA Seattle

ICRA Seattle was a bigger, brasher and more successful robotics conference than has even been seen before. To no small extent, this is due to the explosive growth in the important and success of robotics in almost every regard. For my entire career I have been hearable, and predicting, the imminent success and growing relevance of robotics to industry and society, and it's finally becoming blatantly obvious to our whole society. The was reflected at ICRA in the growth in the number of accepted and submitted papers, the growth in the number of people attending (about 3,000), the growth in the number of people attending who did not have anything to personally present, and the vast growth in the trade show where recruiting was a major theme.


Aside from a few long invited talks, papers were presented via a very short oral pitch and a subsequent extended interactive session in the same room. While this format has proven popular with the research community, I am not fond of it myself. The primary merit is that the very short presentations minimize the time you need to spend listening to talks on material you donít care about; you can then go discuss work you are really interested in. In think this is a disservice to the community since sitting through all talks is a great mechanism for getting a cross section of the community including areas you might not naturally attend to. Many related research communities have fragmented as they grew, and failing to pay attention to research themes other than your own is a perfect mechanism to encourage this. In robotics this would be especially unfortunate since developing robotic systems is a highly integrative activity where broad awareness is particularly important.

Despite my concerns over the format, I though the paper quality was very high and heard about some nice work. One of our own papers was nominated for the best paper award, but unfortunately we didn't emerge as the winner. (The paper was Learning Legged Swimming Gaits from Experience by Meger, Gamboa Higuera, Xu, Giguere, and Dudek). It was great to be a nominee, however, and the other 4 best-paper nominees reflected a great selection of research labs and we supervised by some friends I greatly respect. Amusingly, one of the co-authors (Tsotsos and Soatto) of the winning paper was the son of my own PhD supervisor John Tsotsos!

The big trade show included exhibits from traditional hard-core robotics companies like Adept, long-standing companies with a narrower focus like Da Vinci Surgery, as well as big companies that have started expanding significantly into the robotics domain like Amazon.com.

I also got a chance to visit one of the fulfillment centers operated by Amazon which heavily depends on technology from Amazon Robotics (formerly Kiva). While there are pictures on the web and the natures of these robotic facilities are well known, seeing the place in person was mind-blowing. It was just huge (even though this was a "small" center, and the efficiency due to automation was truly impressive).

Finally, own team won the bid to hold ICRA 2019 in Montreal, which is a big deal in many ways. I'll be Program Chair and Jaydev Desai will be Program Chair.






By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    

FSR 2015

The conference on Field Service Robotics took place in Toronto last week. It's a relatively small meeting (about 100 people) that deals with robots for outdoor applications. There were interesting talks on the measurement of magnetic fields under the ocean, inspection of bridges using quadrotors, and classic robotics issues like localization and SLAM in outdoor environments, such as in the snow.

Our own group had a paper on the automated assessment of coral reefs using image analysis. In that work we corrected reef images using the Aqua robot, and then then did the image analysis offline to allow comprehensive testing. In prior work we have also looked at real-time navigation over the reef using image data. We showed you can match human performance it estimating coral coverage on a reef. A PDF copy of the paper can be found here.

http://www.dudek.org/blog/blogpics/ramius_swimming_in_coral_reef_crop.jpg
http://www.dudek.org/blog/blogpics/ramius_swimming_in_coral_reef_crop.jpg
(Click to expand)









By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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