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27 June

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 |    
29 November

Visiting the glow-worms in Waitatomo

A couple of weeks ago I had a chance to visit Auckland and give some talks. All in all it was a great trip and I visited several interesting universities and other institutions all coordinated by Callaghan Innovation (a branch of the government) and sponsored by Tru-Test. I also managed to squeeze in a sightseeing trip to the Waitomo caves, about 3 hours from the city, a fascinating place.

The caves are inhabited by a type of fly that has a larval stage that glows in the dark to attract prey in the cave. The larve sits on the cave ceiling and lowers a sticky thread, akin to a spiders web. When insects emerge from the river that runs through the cave, they see what I presume they think is star light (or moon light) over head and fly up to become stuck in the threads and eventually consumed. The trip through the cave is very tightly regulated, but it provides and interesting, unique and memorable experience. In addition, the cave itself is quite nice despite a substantial flow of tourists.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/timparkinson/284291008
made available under Creative Commons 2.0: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
25 March

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 |    
05 July

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 |    
30 September

I'm off to Tokyo to attend a variety of events and see some people. With a 13 hours non-profit stop flight, I really had hoped for an upgrade to business class using my accumulated points. I wasn't so lucky, and so will have to endure a couple of list days on the other end as I recover. I hope the other people at the international conference of experimental robotics don't think I'm an imbecile due to the fatigue state I will be in. For trips this long, and people over 25, or more than 6 feet tall, business class is less of a luxury and more of a survival strategy.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
07 October

ISER, Talk at Kyoto U, off to Seoul

The Symposium on Experimental Robotics was very interesting. It's s small single track meeting where you really get to talk to the individuals who are working on projects with a strong experimental flavor. I have attended the meeting many times and would have to say the quality is probably increasing, perhaps consonant with the increasing impact and importance of robotics world wide. Perhaps the most surprising talk I heard was from Carrick Detweiler's lab where they have a flying vehicle that is used to create controlled burns to manage natural resources. To put that more bluntly, it's a quadrotor that spits out flaming/explosive balls to cause the ground below to catch on fire.

Our own work on using teams of different kinds of robots to monitor/measure coral reefs went well and was delivered by Alberto Li. In that work as use a temp of three different kinds if marine vehicle to collect ocean data at different spatial and temporal scales.

On a personal note I loved walking around Tokyo, which is a city with amazing energy.

Afterwards, I went to visit Kyoto University where I gave a colloquium on research projects in our lab, then I got to visit David Avis.

Now I'm off to Seoul Korea en route to the IROS 2016 Conference (International Conference on Robots and Systems) , a multi-thousand-person robotics meeting. The anti-reflective coating on my eyeglasses has started to peel off, perhaps from the humidity here. I'm going to check out Namdaemun Market, in the center of Seoul, where I can apparently pick up a good pair of glasses fast and on the cheap. That should be an adventure! Namdaemun is the biggest traditional market in Korea and seems to sell everything, with some shops have their own factories.

By Gregory Dudek at | Leave a comment |    
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