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08 February
2016

Our January sea trials and workshop went well this year, with a larger attendance then ever before and a successful slate of experiments (about 46 people and at least 7 experiment classes). We held a series of experimental sessions and data collections runs in parallel with a program of seminars and a software development workshop. This was probably too much to cram into just one week, but miraculously it worked pretty well except for some mild burn-out on my part (perhaps exacerbated by a series of serious health problems and scares among members of my family before and after the trip).

Among the interesting events, people in our group collected solid data sets on North Bellairs reef using sonar and vision from various depths, deployed an IVUR2 vehicle to build profiles up to 2 miles out from the reef (that was Ryan Smith and this team), tested a new multi-sensor SLAM unit in various configurations, and hear provocative talks from people like Wolfram Burgard, Stergios Roumeliotis, and Holly Yanco.

Dudek lab, marine field trails 2016
Dudek lab, marine field trails 2016
(Click to expand)



MRL robotics dive team1 2016
MRL robotics dive team1 2016
(Click to expand)


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
25 March
2016

Recently I was part of a contingent of professors from the NCFRN that visited the gold mine operated by Barrick Gold in Elko, NV. Our objective was to find ways that robotics technologies could be relevant to mine operations, and there are many clear applications in terms of mine safety, environmental management and other numerous factors. The scale of the operation there was very impressive, and it was clear that going in person was very important to gain an appreciation of just how big, and how complex, many of the operations are. I had done my homework in advance, but I was still truly impressed and my thoughts were reshaped by the visit.

As I have observed before, central Nevada has an austere beauty and while this wasn't the romantic old mine from a cowboy movie, the mine itself did have a spectacular striking quality that matched its surroundings. As our robotics network matures and moves forward I am confident we can find many ways to collaborate with the mining industry. The biggest challenge will probably to match the scale of their operation and the demanding nature of that domain to the more rarified research world our robots and robotics technologies are developed in, but that underscores the need for collaborations between universities and big real-world companies.

It was also a great chance to spend a lot of time with my NCFRN collaborators and that in itself was a win. They will, however, be glad to be free of my nightly runs to Walmart for Starbucks coffee (for the following day).












My colleagues Mike Jenkin and Steve Waslander looking out at the big pit




By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
16 June
2016

National robotics group runs outdoor testing

Canada's strength in robotics was on display in Sudbury. The robotics revolution is upon us and will affect much of our society and economy. Despite the many articles written about robots eliminating jobs, the research demonstrated at the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN) field trials occurring this week clearly illustrates that robots will positively impact many areas of our lives, including mining, shipping, agriculture, emergency response, and healthcare.

Canada's leading robotics professors, companies, students and government organizations including the Defence Department and the Space Agency are working together to deploy artificial intelligence and self-driving systems in ways previously considered impossible. Working with robots in these rugged outdoor environments is something where Canadian researchers are established world leaders.

At the NCFRN Field Trials, researchers are deploying and testing the latest robotic boats, submarine, drones, and rovers. Using teams of robots together, the devices become much more capable that single robots working in isolation. Network researchers have also discovered that allowing the robots to recognize human activities, and even determine if their human operators trust them, can make the robots much for efficient tools. They are also testing new methods that allow drones to position themselves using a combination of visual landmarks and GPS or to build 3D models from the air of structures such as spoil tips or slag piles to estimate their overall volume, safety and value.

“Field robotics is an key area of the exploding robotics industry where Canada happens to excel” says Professor Gregory Dudek, Scientific Director of the NCFRN. “Forests, mines, fishing, agriculture, all are areas where our robots can help our country remain prosperous and competitive.”

Participants and the NCFRN annual meeting and robot field trials


Participants and the NCFRN annual meeting and robot field trials
(Click to expand)



About the NCFRN


Established in 2012, the NCFRN is a federally sponsored research organization that brings together academic researcher and companies doing leading edge robotics. Over a dozen Canadian companies participate in the network and come from sectors including space robotics, ocean resource management, tele-presence and robotics systems manufacturing.

WHO


Participating researchers are from McGill University, University of Alberta, Simon Fraser, Memorial, Waterloo, York, University of Toronto, Ryerson, Queens, Sherbrooke, and Laval. Canadian industrial partners are also represented in force, including Clearpath, Aeryon Labs, Crosswing, MDA, Kinsol Research, Quanser, and Neptec. Finally, the group is rounded out by the support of government organizations such as Hydro Quebec, the Canadian Space Agency, and Defence Research and Development Canada.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
05 July
2016

This year the International Conference on Robotics and Automation was held in Stockholm, Sweden. It was made up of three intensive days of technical paper presentations, and a couple of days of workshops, working group meetings and associated activities. About 3,000 researchers were in attendance which reflected continued growth in the community -- robotics is, of course, very hot right now -- although in absolute numbers the attendance was not as big as it would have been in more affordably and readily accessible places like Seattle (where numbers were through the roof). Keep in mind that the largest number of internationally active researchers is still in North America.

Personally, this year was very gratifying since there were strong participation from members the NSERC Canadian Field Robotics Network (NCFRN), including my own lab, and a fair number of my former students were also there. As a result, it felt like Canadian researchers really had a strong mutually-supportive presence and a cohort of moral and intellectual support to a degree which I have previously only associated with a few major "teams" on the international stage. The importance of such "community" support is easily underestimated, but I have come to realize that it makes a significant difference in the ability of researchers to flourish and prosper professionally. In addition, scope and complexity of robotics and AI research today means that progress increasingly depends on multi-area research teams that need to be developed and maintained as both social as well as operational entities.

The conference was organized to allow to a few plenary talks an hour long, a number of keynote talks introducing each session, and numerous very short presentations that introduced ideas that were then elaborated in subsequent poster presentations (often called "interactive sessions: since they typically used a live display, as opposed to a plain paper poster). Personally, I greatly prefer longer presentations over short advertisements accompanied by a poster. This is because posters do not allow more than a few people at a time to deeply inspect the material or query the speaker.


Keynote talks were about 20 minutes long.
One of my favorite was by Dieter Fox, shown here,
talking about a system that integrates computer vision, semantic
scene modeling, and speech to work
towards a robotic lab assistant.


Stockholm itself was very picturesque,
although I didn't have much time for sight seeing.

The large plenary talks
were truly huge



By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
15 August
2016

Canada has long been recognized as a world-class player in robotic systems and sensors, and the related science it depends on. Companies such as MDA and Syncrude and organizations such as the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC) have long histories of significant investment in autonomous systems. Many smaller Canadian companies are also key players in the autonomous systems market, including Robotiq and Independent Robotics Inc.

Canada has historically had a very strong reputation in robotics and is thus well placed to be world leader in both robotics (including artificial intelligence) and even the the Internet-of-Things (which is basically uses robotics technologies and tools to build small devices that may not be independently mobile). While the expected importance of the field in terms of science and industrial development is apparent, equally clear is the relevance of the area in terms of science education and even our national identity. Robotics is a key motivator for students to study science and engineering. Likewise, student with robotics training are highly sought-after by industry since they have a broad skill base.

Outdoor (field) Robotics is probably the most Canadian branch of Science today! The Canadarm and Canadarm2 robotic manipulators built by MDA Space Missions (previously Spar Aerospace) are Canadian icons. In a 2008 poll reported by the CBC, the Canadarm was identified as the #1 Canadian accomplishment of all time, ahead of peacekeeping, universal health care, insulin, and the telephone.

Canadian industry and academia are at risk, however, of being left behind as the worldwide pace of robotics research, investment and system integration accelerates. This is especially critical since a large number of Canadian industries or sectors are current or potential users of autonomous systems including aquaculture, farming, oil and gas, mining, security, forestry, and materials transport. Moreover, fully functional robotic systems entail substantial integration between different component technologies and this places major emphasis on collaboration between different research groups, agencies and companies, a fact that has been fully understood by government agencies in the USA, in the European Union, in Japan and in Korea where large new national robotics programs are being launched or are underway.


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
05 August
2016

Flying micro-air-vehicles used to create artwork

My McGill colleague Professor Paul Kry and his student Brendan Galea have developed a micro drone system that makes stippled paintings while flying. They use micro-scale drones equipped with a small brush to create stippled drawings by daubing ink on a canvas. This work involves several tricky features notably including estimating the position of the drone and its ink daub relative to the emerging artwork. For this indoor application they used a motion capture system, which is the way a lot of impressive indoor drone demos get accomplished.

Paul and Brendan work a best paper award recently for this work (International Symposium on Computational Aesthetics in Graphics, Visualization, and Imaging co-located with Eurographics 2016). Paul's main gig is graphics, animation and physically-based modelling so this work also speaks to his great diversity and breadth.

Yogesh Girdhar proposed this several times to various student groups, but largely because of my recalcitrance was never able to get it off the ground. In his case, he wanted to use full-sized drones to do mural-scale paintings, but I was too worried about the vehicles to let me gear be used this way. Around the same time (and perhaps in joint discussions) Paul starting thinking about the same kinds of problem and he realized it could be achieved with micro-drones. That's especially tricky technically since they are hard to control and have a limited flight time. Now as the prices of larger drones has decreased and their controllability has improved, the time may be ripe for doing this on a larger scale as Paul and Brendan have demonstrated.

Doing the real-time localization will be tricky if one wants to scale this up for large scale outdoor applications, but luckily there are some nice outdoor vision based localization systems in development in our lab and elsewhere.

Video:


By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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