Humanoid robots are learning to fall well | TechCrunch

Humanoid robots are learning to fall well | TechCrunch

Savvy marketers Boston Dynamics produced two major robotics news cycles last week. The older of the two, naturally, was Announcing the Electric Atlas. As I write this, the sub-40-second video is steadily approaching five million views. A day earlier, the company tugged at the heartstrings of the community when it announced that the original Hydraulic Atlas Being put out to pasture.a decade after its introduction.

The accompanying video was a celebration of the old Atlas' journey from the DARPA research project to an impressive nimble bipedal 'bot. However, within a minute the tone changes. Ultimately, “Farewell to Atlas” is as much a celebration as it is a blooper reel. It's a welcome reminder that there are dozens of slips, falls and spits every time the robot lands on video.

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

I have long supported this kind of transparency. This is the kind of thing I want to see more of from the world of robotics. Showing only the highlight reel undermines the efforts to capture these shots. In many cases, we're talking years of trial and error to make a robot look good on camera. When you only share positive results, you're setting unrealistic expectations. Bipedal robots fall. In this respect, at least, they are like us. As agility Put it recently, “Everyone falls sometimes, that's how we get back up to what defines us.” I would take it a step further, and that learning to fall well is just as important.

Pras Velagapadi, the company's newly appointed CTO, told me recently that it's actually a good thing to see robots at work at this stage. “When a robot is actually doing real work in the world, unexpected things are going to happen,” he notes. “You're going to see some falls, but that's part of learning to run in a real-world environment for a really long time. That's to be expected, and it's a sign that you're not staging things.”

A quick scan of Harvard's rules To fall without injury Reflects what we as humans intuitively understand about falling:

  1. Protect your head
  2. Use your weight to direct your fall.
  3. Bend your knees.
  4. Avoid taking other people with you.

As for the robot, it IEEE spectrum slice from last year A great place to start.

“We're not afraid of falling — we're not treating robots like they're going to break all the time,” Boston Dynamics CTO Aaron Saunders told the publication last year. “Our robot falls a lot, and one of the things we decided a long time ago (is) that we need to make robots that can fall without breaking. If you push your robot to failure, , can go through this cycle of studying failure and fixing it, then you can develop to where it's not crashing. But if you build a machine or a control system or a culture of never crashing , so you'll never learn what you need to learn to save your robot from falling. We celebrate falls, even falls that break robots.

Image credit: Boston Dynamics

The subject of collapse also came up when I spoke with Boston Dynamics CEO Robert Playter ahead of the launch of the Electric Atlas. Notably, the short video begins with a robot. The way the robot's legs rotate is completely new, allowing the system to stand up from a completely flat position. At first glance, it looks like the company is just showing off, using the flashy move as just a way to show off super-strong custom-built actuators.

“It would have very practical uses,” Player told me. “The robots are going to fall. You better get up from the hunt.” He adds that the ability to rise from a vulnerable position can also be useful for charging purposes.

Much of Boston Dynamics' teaching about collapsing has come from Spot. While the square form factor generally has more stability (as evidenced by decades of trying and failing to kick robots in videos), spot robots have simpler ways to operate in real-world situations. are

Image credit: Agility Robotics

“The spot is walking 70,000 kilometers a year on the factory floor, doing about 100,000 inspections per month,” Playter adds. “They eventually fall. You've got to be able to get back up. Hopefully you can reduce your fall rate – we have. I think we fall once every 100-200km. The drop rate has been really low, but it does happen.

Playter added that the company has a long history of being “rough” on its robots. “They fall off, and they have to be able to survive. Fingers can't fall off.”

Looking at the Atlas outtake above, it's hard not to project a little human sympathy on the 'bot. It actually appears to collapse like a human, tucking its limbs as close to its body as possible to protect itself from injury.

When Agility added arms to Digit in 2019, he discussed their role in the fall. “For us, arms are simultaneously a means of navigating the world – think of getting up after a fall, swinging your arms for balance, or opening a door – while also being useful for manipulating or carrying objects. ” Co-founder Jonathan Hearst noted at the time..

I spoke a bit with Agility about this topic at Modex earlier this year. A year ago, a video of a robot falling on the convention floor caused a stir on social media. “With a 99% success rate during the nearly 20-hour live demo, Digit still took a few drops in the ProMat,” Agility noted at the time. “We don't have any proof, but we think our sales team has set it up so they can talk about quick-change parts and durability in the digits.”

As with the Atlas video, the company told me that something similar to the fetal position is useful for protecting the robot's legs and arms.

The company is using reinforcement learning to help fallen robots. Agility for the video above to force a fall stopped the Digit's obstacle avoidance. In the video, the robot uses its arms to minimize the fall. It then uses its reinforcement learning to return to a familiar position from which it is able to stand up again with a robotic push-up.

One of the main selling points of humanoid robots is their ability to slot into existing workflows—factories and warehouses known as “brownfields,” meaning they weren't custom-made for automation. . In many current cases of factory automation, faults mean that the system is effectively shut down unless a human intervenes.

“Saving a humanoid robot is not trivial,” says Playter, noting that these systems are heavy and can be difficult to manually correct. “How are you going to do that if it can't get itself off the ground?”

If these systems are going to truly ensure uninterrupted automation, they will need to be properly failable and back up again.

“Every time a digit drops, we learn something new,” Velgapodi added. “Falling is a wonderful teacher when it comes to bipedal robotics.”

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