How can a blood clot be removed from the brain without any major surgical intervention? How can a drug be delivered precisely into a diseased organ that is difficult to reach? Those are just two examples of the countless innovations envisioned by the researchers in the field of medical microrobotics. Tiny robots promise to fundamentally change future medical treatments: one day, they could move through patient's vasculature to eliminate malignancies, fight infections or provide precise diagnostic information entirely noninvasively. In principle, so the researchers argue, the circulatory system might serve as an ideal delivery route for the microrobots, since it reaches all organs and tissues in the body.
About 5 years ago we proposed that all robots should be fitted with the robot equivalent of an aircraft Flight Data Recorder to continuously record sensor and relevant internal status data. We call this an ethical black box (EBB). We argued that an ethical black box will play a key role in the processes of discovering why and how a robot caused an accident, and thus an essential part of establishing accountability and responsibility. Since then, within the RoboTIPS project, we have developed and tested several model EBBs, including one for an e-puck robot that I wrote about in this blog, and another for the MIRO robot. With some experience under our belts, we have now drafted an Open Standard for the EBB for social robots – initially as a paper submitted to the International Conference on Robots Ethics and Standards.
At ICRA 2022, Competitions are a core part of the conference. We shine a spotlight on influential competitions in Robotics. In this episode, Dr Liam Paull talks about the Duckietown Competition, where robots drive around Rubber Ducky passengers in an autonomous driving track. Liam Paull is an assistant professor at l'Université de Montréal and the head of the Montreal Robotics and Embodied AI Lab (REAL). His lab focuses on robotics problems including building representations of the world (such as for simultaneous localization and mapping), modeling of uncertainty, and building better workflows to teach robotic agents new tasks (such as through simulation or demonstration).
Deep reinforcement learning (DRL) is transitioning from a research field focused on game playing to a technology with real-world applications. Notable examples include DeepMind's work on controlling a nuclear reactor or on improving Youtube video compression, or Tesla attempting to use a method inspired by MuZero for autonomous vehicle behavior planning. But the exciting potential for real world applications of RL should also come with a healthy dose of caution – for example RL policies are well known to be vulnerable to exploitation, and methods for safe and robust policy development are an active area of research. At the same time as the emergence of powerful RL systems in the real world, the public and researchers are expressing an increased appetite for fair, aligned, and safe machine learning systems. The focus of these research efforts to date has been to account for shortcomings of datasets or supervised learning practices that can harm individuals.
Left: The display that carers will see in the Milbotix app. Inventor Dr Zeke Steer quit his job and took a PhD at Bristol Robotics Laboratory so he could find a way to help people like his great-grandmother, who became anxious and aggressive because of her dementia. Milbotix's smart socks track heart rate, sweat levels and motion to give insights on the wearer's wellbeing – most importantly how anxious the person is feeling. They look and feel like normal socks, do not need charging, are machine washable and provide a steady stream of data to carers, who can easily see their patient's metrics on an app. Current alternatives to Milbotix's product are worn on wrist straps, which can stigmatise or even cause more stress.
As the next edition of the Swiss Robotics Day is in preparation in Lausanne, let's revisit the November 2021 edition, where the vitality and richness of Switzerland's robotics scene was on full display at StageOne Event and Convention Hall in Zurich. It was the first edition of NCCR Robotics's flagship event after the pandemic, and it surpassed the scale of previous editions, drawing in almost 500 people. You can see the photo gallery here. Welcome notes from ETH President Joël Mesot and NCCR Robotics Director Dario Floreano opened a dense conference programme, chaired by NCCR Robotics co-Director Robert Riener and that included scientific presentations from Marco Hutter (ETH Zurich), Stéphanie Lacour and Herb Shea (both from EPFL), as well as the industry perspective from ABB's Marina Bill, Simon Johnson from the Drone Industry Association and Hocoma co-founder Gery Colombo. A final roundtable – including Robert Riener, Hocoma's Serena Maggioni, Liliana Paredes from Rehaklinik and Georg Rauter from the University of Basel – focused on the potential and the challenges of innovation in healthcare robotics.
The upcoming ICRA 2022 conference will be the first robotics conference that many attend in-person for the first time since the pandemic. For many, it may be your first time ever attending an academic conference. Before it passes by you in a blink, we have a series of posts -- a "millennial's guide" if you will -- to help you make the most out of it.
Future generations of robots will work very differently from those that assemble entire vehicles or solder electronics onto circuit boards at lightning speed on factory floors today. They will leave the factory halls and start working with people, handing them a tool at the right moment or assisting them in assembling heavy components. They will appear in agriculture, helping harvest the fields or process the fruits. And they will increasingly be found in living rooms, supporting and entertaining people there or simply making them feel less alone. Of course, these robots will also look different from the enormous metallic contraptions found in today's industrial plants.
The Inspection and Maintenance (I&M) Industry represents a large economic activity spanning across multiple sectors such as energy, oil & gas, water supply, transport, civil engineering, and infrastructure. RIMA project aims at bringing together Digital Innovation Hubs and Facilitators operating under a common network that allow them to join forces and competences in promoting I&M robotics in Europe. The BIS Research projects' analysis of the Inspection and Maintenance Robot Industry forecasts that the I&M market will grow at a significant CAGR of 12.73% on the basis of value from 2020 to 2025. In 2019, Europe dominated the 40% of the global inspection and maintenance robot market (BIS322A, Mar 2020). Although the European Union hosts most of the I&M robotics offer – being France, Germany, and Spain (and U.K. until 2021 Brexit) the leading manufacturing countries, there is still a bottleneck connecting this offer to the market and high potential applications.
I believe that one of the best ways to get the training you need for a job market in robotics is to attend tutorials at conferences like ICRA. Unlike workshops where you might listen to some work-in-progress, other workshop paper presentations and panel discussions, tutorials are exactly what they sound like. They aim to give you some hands-on learning sessions on technical tools/skills with specific learning objectives. As such, most tutorials would expect you to come prepared to actively participate and follow along. For instance, the "Tools for Robotic Reinforcement Learning" tutorial expects you to come knowing how to code in python and have basic knowledge of reinforcement learning because you'll be expected to use those skills/knowledge in the hands-on sessions. There are seven tutorials this year.