Archive for the ‘Podcast’ Category

April 4th, 2014

Robots: Termite-Inspired Construction

In this episode, we talk to Justin Werfel from the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University about their latest paper published in Science on “Designing Collective Behavior in a Termite-Inspired Robot Construction Team”. This work was done with Kirstin Petersen and Radhika Nagpal, director of the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group.

Termites provide a beautiful example of how simple agents, using only local information, can build complex structures such as termite mounds. Taking inspiration from these swarm systems in nature, Werfel and colleagues have created TERMES robots that build three-dimensional structures without the need for any leader or prescribed roles. Such systems are typically scalable (i.e. you can add as many robots as you’d like) and robust to the failure of individual robots, making them ideal candidates for high-risk missions in space or disaster scenarios. The beetle-looking robots are able to carry and deposit blocks and navigate a structure. The challenge is to determine the simple rules the robots need to follow and that will give rise to the desired structure. To decide what rule to apply at a given time, the robots simply observe their local environment, checking if there is a block or not in front of them, and determining if they should add one as a result. This form of communication through the environment is called stigmergy and is an important concept in swarm systems. In the future, the authors hope to use their expertise to learn more about how termites are able to build their mounds.

Justin Werfel
justinJustin Werfel is a research scientist at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. His research interests are in the understanding and design of complex and emergent systems. He is currently working on the development of robotic systems motivated by biological collectives, such as ant colonies, termites, and cellular slime molds, with Wyss faculty including Radhika Nagpal and Rob Wood. He completed his Ph.D. at MIT in 2006, developing algorithms to allow swarms of simple robots to autonomously build user-specified structures. His postdoctoral research at Harvard included further exploration of collective construction, work on the evolution of cooperative and altruistic behaviors at the New England Complex Systems Institute, and cancer modeling at Harvard Medical School/Children’s Hospital Boston.

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January 10th, 2014

Robots: Interdisciplinary Teams

In today’s episode Per Sjöborg speaks with Giulio Sandini, director of the Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences department at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), about how he eventually came to study robotics after starting out as a vision scientist in the field of bioengineering. They talk about why interdisciplinary work is important to robotics, and how diverse teams of engineers, biologists, psychologists, mathematicians, physicists, and medical doctors can learn from each other; Sandini follows up with several examples of interdisciplinary success at the IIT including the iCub and COMAN humanoid platforms, the HyQ quadruped, and their work in rehabilitation robotics.

Giulio Sandini
Giulio Sandini is Director of Research at the Italian Institute of Technology and full professor of bioengineering at the University of Genoa. After his graduation in Electronic Engineering (Bioengineering) at the University of Genova in 1976 he was research fellow and assistant professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa until 1984. During this period, working at the Laboratorio di Neurofisiologia of the CNR, he investigated aspects of visual processing at the level of single neurons as well as aspects of visual perception in human adults and children. He has been Visiting Research Associate at the Department of Neurology of the Harvard Medical School in Boston. After his return to Genova in 1984 as associate professor he founded the Laboratory for Integrated Advanced Robotics. In 1996 he was Visiting Scientist at the Artificial Intelligence Lab of MIT.

Since 2006 he is Director of Research at the Italian Institute of Technology where he has established and is currently directing the Robotics, Brain and Cognitive Sciences department. RBCS is a multidisciplinary environment composed of researchers with different backgrounds (engineers, biologists, psychologists, mathematicians, physicists, medical doctors) sharing “human centered” Scientific and Technological interests along three streams of research: Humanoid Cognition, Human Behavior and Biomechanics, Brain Machine Interface.

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September 20th, 2013

Robots: Origami Robots - Transcript

In this episode Matthew Schroyer speaks with Nick Kohut, CEO of Dash Robotics, about their foldable hexapod robot and the ongoing crowdfunding campaign to get them into the hands of budding engineers, kids and hobbyists.

Dash is the result of years of research in fast prototyping of bioinspired robots at Ron Fearing’s Biomimietic Millisystems Lab at UC Berkeley (see Fearing Podcast or Hoover Podcast). The palm-sized origami robot is now available for the general public to build and program. The robot takes inspiration from insect locomotion by using compliant and light weight hardware to drive over difficult terrain without using any complex controllers (see Bob Full podcast). You can check out their Dragon crowdfunding campaign for a chance to get one of the first 1000 robots. The campaign ends on October 2nd.

Nick Kohut
Nick Kohut is the co-founder and CEO of Dash Robotics. He is also a postdoc at Stanford University in Mark Cutkosky’s Biomimetics and Dextrous Manipulation Laboratory, working on a variable stiffness suspension element for humanoid robotics. He received his Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, in Ron Fearing’s Biomimetic Millisystems Lab, developing small legged robots. His research focused on the development of an active tail to enable high speed turning. In the past, he also did research on centimeter scale robots, and using GPS and traffic information to improve fuel economy.

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September 6th, 2013

Robots: Construction with Amorphous Materials - Transcript

In this episode we speak with Nils Napp from the Self-organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University.

Napp tells us about his project to create robots that can reliably build structures in uncertain, unstructured terrain. Like termites that can build complex structures using shapeless materials like mud, his robots build structures out of foam, toothpicks or bags of sand. As a first example, he’s been working on ramp building in chaotic environments remnant of disaster scenarios. Focus is given to designing algorithms that allow the robot to build up the ramp using only local information and without any preplanning. These features allow his algorithms to be scaled to multiple robots, thereby speeding up the process. Finally, Napp tells us about the challenges he faces when working with such materials, the steps needed to bring these robots out of the lab and tradeoffs with classical construction techniques. He also introduces us to his latest work in synthetic biology.


And here’s an example of another SSR robot using amorphous material by Christian Ahler.

Nils Napp
Nils Napp is a postdoctoral fellow at Radhika Nagpal’s Self-organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University. Before coming to Harvard, Nils Napp received his Master and PhD in Electrical Engineering from the University of Washington where he worked at the Klavins lab on Robotic Chemistry and Programmable Parts.

His main research focus is on control strategies for groups of robots and other distributed systems. Ultimately, he hopes to make self-organized systems that like biological systems are able to reliably work in random, unstructured, and fluctuating environments.

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May 31st, 2013

Robots: Curved Artificial Compound Eye

In this episode, we speak with Ramon Pericet and Michal Dobrzynski from EPFL about their Curved Artificial Compound Eye (CurvACE) published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Inspired by the fly’s vision system, their sensor can enable a large range of applications that require motion detection using a small plug-and-play device. As shown in the video below, you could use these sensors to control small robots navigating an environment, even in the dark, or equip a small autonomous flying robot with limited payload. Other applications include home automation, surveillance, medical instruments, prosthetic devices, and smart clothing.


The artificial compound eye features a panoramic, hemispherical field of view with a resolution identical to that of the fruitfly in less than 1 mm thickness. Additionally, it can extract images 3 times faster than a fruitfly, and includes neuromorphic photoreceptors that allow motion perception in a wide range of environments from a sunny day to moon light. To build the sensors, the researchers align an array of microlenses, an array of photodetectors, and a flexible PCB that mechanically supports and electrically connects the ensemble.

This work is part of the European Project Curvace which brings together a total of 15 people from four partners in France, Germany and Switzerland.

You can read our full coverage about this new sensor on Robohub.

Ramon Pericet Camara
Ramon Pericet Camara is the scientific coordinator for the CurvACE project and a postdoctoral researcher at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPFL. His research interests are oriented towards bio-inspired robotics, soft robotics, and soft-condensed matter physics.

Ramon received a Masters degree in Physics in 2000 from the University of Granada (Spain) and a PhD in Multidisciplinary Research from the University of Geneva (Switzerland) in 2006. Subsequently, he was granted a fellowship for prospective researchers from the Swiss National Science Foundation to join the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research in Mainz (Germany).

Michal Dobrzynski
Michal Dobrzynski is a PhD student at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at EPFL. He obtained his master degree in Automatic Control and Robotics in 2006 from the Warsaw Technical University (Poland). He then joined the SGAR S.L. Company (Barcelona, Spain) as a Robot and PLC Software Engineer where his work focused on industrial robots and automatic lines programming and visualization. Next, in 2007, he joined a Numerical Method Laboratory at the University Politechnica of Bucharest (Romania) where he spent two years working in the FP6 “Early Stage Training 3″ project as a Researcher.




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