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Social and agile: robots seek partners

  • 26 Jul 2021 13:39
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Prof Thalmann, is director of the Institute for Media Innovation who led the development of Nadine, and says these social robots are among NTU’s many exciting new media innovations companies can leverage for commercialisation.

“Robotics technologies have advanced significantly over the past few decades and are already being used in manufacturing and logistics. As countries worldwide face challenges of an ageing population, social robots can be one solution to address the shrinking workforce, become personal companions for children and the elderly at home, and even serve as a platform for healthcare services in future,”  says this  expert in virtual humans from a faculty from NTU’s School of Computer Engineering.

“Over the past four years, our team at NTU have been fostering cross-disciplinary research in social robotics technologies – involving engineering, computer science, linguistics, psychology and other fields – to transform a virtual human, from within a computer, into a physical being that is able to observe and interact with other humans.

“This is somewhat like a real companion that is always with you and conscious of what is happening. So in future, these socially intelligent robots could be like C-3PO, (left) the iconic golden droid from Star Wars, with knowledge of language and etiquette.”   But do not overlook R2D2 (right) for real appeal.

Telepresence robot lets people be in two or more places at once Nadine’s robot-in-arms, EDGAR, was also put through its paces at NTU’s new media showcase, complete with a rear-projection screen for its face and two highly articulated arms.

EDGAR is a tele-presence robot optimised to project the gestures of its human user. By standing in front of a specialised webcam, a user can control EDGAR remotely from anywhere in the world. The user’s face and expressions will be displayed on the robot’s face in real time, while the robot mimics the person’s upper body movements.

This robot can also deliver speeches by autonomously acting out a script. With an integrated webcam, he automatically tracks the people he meets to engage them in conversation, giving them informative and witty replies to their questions.  Such social robots are ideal for use at public venues, such as tourist attractions and shopping centres, as they can offer practical information to visitors.

Led by Assoc Prof Gerald Seet (left) from the School of Mechanical & Aerospace Engineering and the BeingThere Centre at NTU, this made-in-Singapore robot represents three years of research and development.

“EDGAR (below right) is a real demonstration of how telepresence and social robots can be used for business and education,” added Prof Seet. “Telepresence provides an additional dimension to mobility. The user may project his or her physical presence at one or more locations simultaneously, meaning that geography is no longer an obstacle.

.“In future, a renowned educator giving lectures or classes to large groups of people in different locations at the same time could become commonplace. 

Or you could attend classes or business meetings all over the world using robot proxies, saving time and travel costs.”

Given that some companies have expressed interest in the robot technologies, the next step for these NTU scientists is to look at how they can partner with industry to bring them to the market.


"Much like a cat or a goat that is very agile on rough terrain, this robot can in the future help in very unstructured environments, for example after an earthquake, after a tsunami or after a house has collapsed for other reasons; these kind of robots can be applied in an environment where the terrain is difficult and where you don't want to send people,"explains  Claudio Semini, who is leading the research.

To protect itself while deployed in a structure damaged in an earthquake, for example, HyQ2Max is designed to be robust against the impact of falling objects. In addition all sensitive parts like sensors, valves, actuators and electronics are protected inside the structure.

HyQ2Max's main designer is mechanical design engineer Jake Goldsmith, who made its torso from aerospace-grade aluminum alloy, with lightweight fiberglass with Kevlar covers protecting the onboard computer.

Key to HyQ2Max's potential for real-world application is its ability to get back on its feet, even when knocked over completely. Its larger joint ranges and higher joint torques, HyQ2Max  (below) means it can right itself in a matter of seconds.

"So we want to put the robot down on the ground and see how it gets back up on its feet. So this can happen in reality when the robot, for example, slips or is somehow falling down for whatever reason; that robot needs to be able to get up again," said Semini.

While the robot is designed with search and rescue missions in mind, Semini claims it could prove a useful tool for many industries.

"A lot of markets that have a bigger potential."  He quotes construction,  forestry industry, maintenance, remote inspection -  a various range of applications where  high mobility vehicles will be applied in the future," he said.

Quadruped robots operating in real-world applications will be needed to manipulate objects at some point. The work now is on a pair of agile arms t mounted in front of HyQ2Max and other IIT quadrupeds. Centaur-style this robot would combine stable four-leg base and ability to handle objects.

Take three robots and start to tango
with a stable, or a team or both?

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