Archive for the ‘Podcast’ Category

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 18th, 2012

Robots: The Future of Robot Companions

In this interview recorded at the Robotdalen Robotics Innovation Challenge, Professor Paolo Dario talks to Per about 3 conceptual waves of innovation, starting with industrial robots, then adding artificial intelligence and finally the third wave, which is coming, where convergence between different fields of science and interdisciplinary teams become increasingly important.

Dario also gives his perspective on ethics and legal issues in robotics, and how robots can evolve based on ambient intelligence. Robots can basically take advantage of being a part of an interconnected system, where not all the intelligence is necessarily part of the robot itself.

Finally, Dario shares some learnings from his time as President of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, before telling us more about the FET project Robot companions for citizens.

Paolo Dario
Paolo Dario received his Dr. Eng. Degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Pisa, Italy, in 1977. He is currently a Professor of Biomedical Robotics at the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa and teaches at the School of Engineering of the University of Pisa and at the Campus Biomedico University in Rome.

Prof. Dario was the founder of the Advanced Robotics Technologies and Systems Laboratory and is currently the Co-ordinator of the Center for the Research in Microengineering Laboratoryof the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna, where he supervises a team of about 70 researchers and Ph.D. students. His main research interests are in the fields of medical robotics, bio-robotics, mechatronics and micro/nanoengineering, and specifically in sensors and actuators for the above applications, and in robotics for rehabilitation.

He is the coordinator of many national and European projects, the editor of two books on the subject of robotics, and the author of more than 200 scientific papers. Prof. Dario has served as President of the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society in the years 2002-2003, and he is currently Co-Chair of the Technical Committees on Bio-robotics and of Robo-ethics of the same Society. Prof. Dario is an IEEE Fellow, a Fellow of the European Society on Medical and Biological Engineering, and a recipient of many honors and awards. He is also a member of the Board of the International Foundation of Robotics Research (IFRR). Right now Professor Dario works on the FET Flagship initiative Robot Companions for Citizens, with the goal to realize a unique and unforeseen multidisciplinary science and engineering program supporting a radically new approach towards machines and how we deploy them in our society.

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February 24th, 2012

Robots: Self-Organizing Systems

In today’s episode we focus on self-organizing systems in modular and swarm robotics with Radhika Nagpal, director of the Self-Organizing Systems Research Group at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard.

Radhika Nagpal

Whether you’re looking at multicellular organisms or social insects such as ants and termites, nature has found powerful ways to make systems self-organize. In these collectives, individuals that are typically simple, unreliable, and limited, cooperate through local interactions to achieve complex behaviors.

Radhika Nagpal has been building on these principles to make modular and swarm robots that are able to work together in a decentralized manner. She tells us about a self-balancing modular table that is able to adapt to terrain while balancing your cup of coffee. In the TERMES project, robots work together to build the environment in which they evolve, creating the very staircase that will allow them to build a structure. We also look at how her group has made large-scale swarm robotics a reality with the kilobot project and its 1024 quarter-sized robots previously featured on our podcast.

Finally, Nagpal tells us about how her insights in mathematics and the theory of self-organization can also help us learn something about biological systems.

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October 21st, 2011

Robots: Demonstrations at IROS

In today’s show, we hear about two demonstrations that caught our attention at the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS). Péter Fankhauser from the ETHZ in Zurich tells us about the Rezero ballbot, a balancing robot that speeds around on a sphere. Mike Rubenstein from the Self-organizing Systems Research Group at Harvard then tells us about their efforts to make swarms of 1024 robots a reality with the kilobot project.

Péter Fankhauser

© Karl Hug Ringier AG


Péter Fankhauser is the leader of the Rezero ballbot project. The Rezero project was one of last year’s “Focus Projects” during which Bachelor students in Mechanical Engineering at ETHZ have the opportunity to develop a product from scratch. The project was supervised by Prof. Siegwart from the Autonomous Systems Laboratory. Rezero brought together eight future mechanical engineers, two electrical engineers studying at the ZHAW as well as Industrial Designers from ZHdK.

The interdisciplinary team developed the ballbot, a robot that balances and drives around on a ball. Using a single ball instead of wheels allows the robot to move spontaneously in any direction, fit into tight spaces, and achieve high speeds. The robot was often seen zipping through the hallways at IROS earlier this month.

Fankhauser tells us about his learning experience, challenges in working in large crossdisciplinary teams, the secret behind the ballbot capabilities and the future steps in making the ballbot a commercial reailty.

Mike Rubenstein

Mike Rubenstein is a postdoctoral researcher from the Self-organizing Systems Research Group at Harvard. In an effort to make large swarms of robots a reality, he’s been building 1024 coin-sized robots dubbed kilobots. Challenges include making the robots low-cost and easy to assemble, recharge, reprogram and control. The final system is made with only $14 worth of parts, takes 5 minutes to assemble and can be operated in less than a minute. The open source release of all the electronics and assembly documents is expected near the end of this year.

After bording a plane with 100+ robots, Rubenstein was able to demonstrate the system at IROS.

In the future, Rubenstein hopes to implement his thesis work on “Self-assembly and self-healing for robotic collectives” on the kilobots. An example of such a system is show in the video below.

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January 28th, 2011

Robots: Odor Source Localization

In this episode we revisit robot olfaction and take a closer look at the problem of odor source localization. Our first guest, Hiroshi Ishida from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology is an expert in the field, whose sniffing robots range from blimps to ground and underwater robots. Our second guest, Thomas Lochmatter from EPFL talks about tradeoffs between biologically inspired and probabilistic approaches to navigate a gas plume.

Hiroshi Ishida

Hiroshi Ishida is Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Systems Engineering, Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology, Japan.
The focus of his research group is to develop robots that can find sources of airborne gas plumes or underwater chemical plumes. To this end, they developed the Active Stereo Nose (see figure below), a differential gas sampling system inspired by the dog’s nose, and the Crayfish robot that mimics the mechanism used by crayfish in nature to create unidirectional water currents.

Thomas Lochmatter

image credit: SNF


During his PhD at the Distributed Intelligent Systems and Algorithms Lab at EPFL in Switzerland, Thomas Lochmatter developed a modular odor system for the Khepera III robot. His research focused on the pros and cons of biologically-inspired and probabilistic algorithms for odor localization, while dealing with both single and multi-robot systems.

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