Archive for the ‘Podcast’ Category

February 22nd, 2013

Robots: Insect-inspired Navigation

In this episode Per talks to Michael Mangan from the University of Edinburgh about using robotics to study and replicate insect behaviour. Mangan describes his studies of desert ants, that are able to accurately navigate arduous environments despite having a very small brain (less than 400 000 neurons). This is an interesting problem as the desert environment is very challenging, it is too hot for pheromone navigation and nearly featureless, making visual navigation difficult.

Michael Mangan
Michael Mangan started by training as an avionics engineer at the University of Glasgow, later deciding to specialize in robotics after taking a course. At that time he was particularly inspired by some of the biorobotics projects in the press such as MIT’s Robot Tuna and Penguin Boat projects. He was very interested in this approach promising improved performance for engineering tasks by taking inspiration from biological systems solving similar problems.

Keen to work in this area he then moved to the Insect Robotics Lab, at the University of Edinburgh to undertake a PhD with Prof. Barbara Webb (see previous podcast interview). This lab combines robotics techniques with animal behavioural experiments in a synergistic loop aimed at revealing how these organisms achieve such impressive behaviors, despite their limited neural hardware and often low-resolution sensory systems. Revealing the parsimonious techniques used by these animals may then allow us to apply them to robotic systems.

Mangan’s current research focuses on the navigational abilities of desert ants. These ants scavenge for food over long distances despite searing surface temperatures when pheromone trails evaporate too quickly to use for guidance. Instead the ants rely mainly on visual cues for guidance. He has recently documented the impressive individual route following behavior of desert ants in southern Spain, and mapped their habitat for the first time. This has allowed the first rigorous testing of robotic and biologically plausible models of navigation in the ant world, as viewed by the ant.

Mangan is currently constructing these virtual worlds for public use and they will be available from www.AntNav.org. This webpage is currently under development but he hopes to have initial data uploaded soon, so stay tuned.

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June 18th, 2010

Robots: Modeling Biology

In today’s episode we speak about modeling biology using robots and how lessons learned through this process can feedback into robotics. Our first guest, Barbara Webb, is a world renowned expert in the field with several seminal papers on the subject such as “Using robots to understand animal behavior.” This interview follows up on her previous interview with Talking Robots. Our second guest, Steffen Wischmann, from the EPFL and University of Lausanne gives us his in-depth overview of the cross-fertilization between biology and robotics and tells us about his interest in artificial evolution.

Barbara Webb

Barbara Webb is director of the Insect Robotics Group at the Institute of Perception, Action and Behaviour at the University of Edinburgh.

Her group researches and models the sensorimotor capabilities of insects ranging from simple reflexive behaviours such as the phonotaxis of crickets, to more complex capabilities such as multimodal integration, navigation and learning.

While her group carries out behavioural experiments on insects, they principally work on computational models of the underlying neural mechanisms, which are often embedded on robot hardware. We’ll be talking to her about insect inspired robotics as a control system design approach.

Steffen Wischmann

Steffen Wischmann is a Postdoctoral researcher based at the Laboratory of Intelligent Systems at the EPFL and at the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Lausanne. His current research investigates the evolution and the neural mechanisms of cooperation and communication in biological systems using robotic models. After years of reading about the close interaction between robotics and biology, he gives us his opinion on when robotic models are interesting for biology, to what depth the models should replicate biology and the use of artificial evolution.

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For more information and a video on the Ballbot as well as this year’s robot novelties at the Automatica trade fair, visit the Robots Forum!

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October 9th, 2009

Robots: Active Touch

In today’s show we’ll be dabbing at the subject of active touch. Our first guest, Tony Prescott from the University of Sheffield in the UK has been looking at how rats actively use their whiskers to sense their environment and how this can be used in robotics or to help understand the brain. Our second guest, Elio Tuci, evolved a robot arm to touch an object and then figure out what the object is as a first step towards understanding language in humans.

Tony Prescott

Tony Prescott is Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Sheffield, co-director of the University’s Adaptive Behaviour Research Group and Director of the Active Touch Laboratory. In the scope of several large European projects, such as BIOTACT and ICEA, he’s been frisking the whiskers of rats to study how they can be used to actively interact with their environments and how the signals from these sensors tap into the brain. To test models he’s inferred from high-speed images of real rats, Prescott has been working with a rat-like robot called SCRATCHbot developed in collaboration with the Bristol Robotics Lab. SCRATCHbot is equipped with an active 18-whisker array and a non-actuated micro-vibrissae array located on the “nose”. Its head is connected to the body by a 3 degrees of freedom neck, and the body is driven by 3 independently-steerable motor drive units.




More generally, whiskers have a real potential in robotics applications for their ability to detect and categorize objects and surface textures while only lightly touching the objects they interact with. Touch is still a widely untapped sensor modality that could be strapped to robot arms, cleaning robots and maybe your LEGO robot. For this purpose, Prescott is looking at creating an off-the-shelf version of the rat’s whisker system.

Elio Tuci

Elio Tuci is a researcher at the Institute of Cognitive Sciences and Technologies of the Italian National Research Council, member of the Laboratory of Autonomous Robotics and Artificial Life. Tuci is currently working on the ITALK Project which is studying the various aspects of language and how humans learn to speak. He tells us about how active perception is an integral part of how we learn to categorize objects, a necessary prerequisite to developing language. He speaks in particular about his recent work on a robot arm that evolved to discriminate between different objects such as ellipses and circles using active touch.

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For videos of Japan’s new Gigantor robot statue, Nissan’s EPORO car robots and Panasonic’s new Power Loader exoskeleton visit the Robots forum!

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September 25th, 2009

Robots: Emergent Communication

In today’s episode we deal with the question of communication, what it means, where it comes from, and how it can be applied to robots. We first speak with Sara Mitri, whose research spans both robotics and evolutionary biology and tries to answer basic questions on how communication evolved many millennia ago using high-tech robotics of the 21st century. We then speak with Prof. Jürgen Jost who is director of two research groups a the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences. He’ll be giving us his thoughts on the intentionality of robot communication.

Sara Mitri

Sara Mitri is a researcher working in collaboration with both the robotics-oriented Laboratory of Intelligent Systems, lead by Prof. Floreano at the EPFL in Switzerland and the biology-oriented Keller Group at the University of Lausanne. Mitri is studying communication and cooperation in social animals in an unconventional way. By using ground-based S-Bot robots to model biological agents, she hopes to be better able to control the various parameters of evolution than by using biological systems such as bacteria or insects.

Mitri’s recent articles in Current Biology and PNAS have been receiving a lot of media attention. Partly because of the resulting new scientific insights, but also because of the work’s unusual and powerful method. While retaining many of the real-world complexities present in biological systems, Mitri’s robotic models allow complete access to all model parameters. And there is another key advantage: Today very little is known about the evolution of phenomena like communication, because they leave no trace in the fossil record. By conducting artificial evolution, Mitri’s work allows to reconstruct part of that missing evolutionary history and shed light on the origins of communication in all animals, from simple cells to us humans.



Jürgen Jost

Jürgen Jost works at the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences in Leipzip, Germany where he directs two research groups on Geometry, Analysis and Theoretical Physics and on Complex Structures in Biology and Cognition. As an expert in complex systems, Prof. Jost tells us about one of his interests, communication of all types. The Robots podcast had a chance to meet him at the European Conference on Complex Systems this year where he raised the question “Can Robots Communicate?” and is this communication intentional.




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Latest News:

For impressive videos of Joules, the robotic tandem bike partner, the world’s first Robotic Bed and Boston Dynamic’s Precision Urban Hopper head over to the robotics forum!

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November 21st, 2008

Robots: Bio-inspired Locomotion

In our 13th episode we talk with biologist Robert Full from UC Berkeley about the research he’s been doing on animal locomotion and how his insights have been inspiring engineers to create robots. We then talk to expert Auke Ijspeert from the EPFL on his insight on bio-inspired locomotion.

Robert Full

Prof. Robert Full is the director of the Poly-Pedal Lab at UC Berkeley where he has been interacting with engineers, biologists and mathematicians for the interdisciplinary study of locomotion in animals and robots.

By studying how cockroaches run over complex terrain or how crabs can run in sand, he’s inspired roboticists to create the RHex robot with open-loop control and bouncy legs capable of running along in rough terrain. With the running out of the way, Full then looked at climbing animals such as geckos and the Van der Waals forces which allow their hairy feet to cling to a wall. The resulting bio-inspired dry adhesives have been covered in Talking Robots by Prof. Ron Fearing and Prof. Mettin Sitti. However, what happens when a gecko slips or even falls? After a quick inquiry from an engineer about the use of gecko tails, Full found the answer by discovering that geckos can actively use their tail to stabilize and even do controlled gliding!



Finally, Prof. Full presents his view on bio-inspired engineering, the use of robots for biologists, and the amazing compliance and robustness of living creatures still unachievable by robots.

Auke Ijspeert

Prof. Auke Ijspeert is a long-time colleague of Full, meeting at countless conferences and exchanging visits to each other’s labs on both sides of the Atlantic. As professor of the Biologically Inspired Robotics Group at EPFL in Lausanne, Switzerland, he is involved in many bio-inspired robotics projects such as the Salamandra Robotica, and has been featured in a Talking Robots interview on his work. Ijspeert tells us a bit about Full’s work as seen by the scientific community, and what he thinks are Full’s most important contributions to the field of robotics.

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Visit the Robots Forum for links and discussions about the
Death of the Phoenix Lander, World’s largest robotic truck and Honda’s assisted walking prototype presented in the podcast.

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