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Low cost robots help students get up to speed

Low cost robots help students get up to speed

Over the next decade or so, researchers in Edinburgh are working to develop robots that can learn, adapt and take decisions independently of human control. This ambitious and far-reaching work brings together dozens of scientists and engineers from both the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University together with multiple industrial partners.

The work at Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAD) has funding from EPSRC and industry totalling around £13 million. The CDT addresses the key challenges for understanding and managing the interactions between robots, humans and their environment.

An area of note is the work being done by Dr Subramanian Ramamoorthy, which is focused on building autonomous robots that are capable of acting intelligently, as equals to human co-workers, in human-robot interactions. The overall goal is to create a structured space where robots can collaborate with each other as well as humans in an effective and efficient way. In order to achieve this there are many aspects to the research work and topics include – vision, manipulation, navigation, language, task and goal recognition, learning and adaptation amongst others.

Dr Ramamoorthy’s group was the first UK educational institution to take delivery of a pair of Baxter robots, and he explains how he came to learn about Baxter and why he needed two of them: “I remember my first experience with Baxter was when I heard that Rodney Brooks was setting up a robotics company. We were in the planning stages of our research work and so we were looking at the tools we would be using. My own interests are in the area of robotics and collaborative AI so this seemed like a perfect fit. 

“I liked the fact that Rodney was explicitly looking to make a robot that was easy to work, not the kind of robot where you spend all of your time doing mechanical maintenance or low level programming, but one that you could work with out of the box.

“We found that there really isn’t much of an alternative, at this price point, for a bi-manual manipulation robot. Active Robots came here with Baxter and did a demonstration and presentation for us, and very soon after we bought a pair of them.”

Ramamoorthy continues: “There were a few things that were important to us when evaluating Baxter. ROS was a key requirement of course; we’re not interested in closed proprietary systems as maintenance is a real pain. Robotics is also at a stage where it is very important for us to be able to borrow from and share libraries and modules with others.

“We also knew it was important for us to have a robot that could work in a human environment for our interaction work and having two Baxters also allows us to explore robot-robot interactions as well.

Talking of his good experience with the Baxter robots, Ramamoorthy says: Our first project was undertaken by an MSc student who worked on having Baxter pick up a multi-coloured cube from a human hand, simulating un-fixtured handover of tools and other objects. Although this is a simple problem to start with, it is representative of the kind of work we are doing here. For example, how do we address the context of people holding the cube in a different way, and continually moving and shaking it during the interaction? How does varied lighting affect the ability to track the cube? 

“Once the student had solved these issues we took the robot to the National Museum of Scotland as a demonstration at the Edinburgh International Science festival, where a very diverse selection of members of the public interacted with the Baxter in this way.”

Ramamoorthy adds “We use Baxter at an undergraduate level for final year projects and sometimes even earlier for teaching. Baxter is useful to us as it is an easy to use physical robot and also comes with a simulation framework that you can get into relatively easily. 

It’s actually a simulation framework that we teach to everybody, to every robotics student. So after they have figured out a certain amount of programming, once they become serious robotics students, we get them involved with ROS and the simulator. So the fact that with Baxter there is a good simulator, a physical robot and easy to access public libraries means it’s relatively low cost for us to get a robotics student up to a sufficient level quickly.”

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