I’m in Graz for the RoboCup Rescue- my talk on Friday was well-received and it was great to see so many students doing such great work!
I finally got to meet Amir Soltanzadeh, my Facebook buddy, and leader of the AriAnA team- the team gave me their uniform- thanks! Iran has always been very active in RoboCup Rescue and AAAI rescue competitions- it’s certainly a practical application given the earthquakes in that area, though the real “killer app” is using robots to remove land mines. I was very impressed with how quickly the US and Iran set aside differences to allow the US international team to help at the 2003 Bam earthquake. Colleagues in Iran tried to arrange for CRASAR to attend but it would have taken 2 days by commercial air- too late to be of much help and too expensive to just check things out- and we could only get permission from the State department to fly with the military over, not back.
The competition was well attended by about 20 teams from Europe and Asia (none from the US)- you can check out robocup.org for more details. The competition arena designed by Adam Jacoff at NIST has to satisfy many constraints- it has to be cheap, shippable to different venues, repeatable so everyone can build their own, open and visible so that spectators can see, and still present a challenge! In the early years of the competition when it was held at IJCAI, Chief Ron Rogers of Florida Task Force 3 was involved and put up tarps to black out areas and created some water hazards. More realistic, but quite the barrier for new teams to get involved and hard on the spectators!
I haven’t been to RoboCup Rescue in several years. There was a surprising homogeneity between platforms. Almost all of the ground platforms have converged to a Packbot or Talon style with flippers and treads and a similar size, with manipulator arms. I didn’t see any innovative platforms such as snakes, legs (such as RHex), or even the wheel/leg combinations you see from Case Western. Most of the platforms were large enough to be mistaken for bomb squad or law enforcement robots.
Another common touch was the addition of a camera on a mount behind the manipulator arm (if there is one). This is to give the operator exproprioceptive information and compensate for the lack of sensing in robotics. Rescue robots always have a camera- that provides exteroceptive sensing- sensing of the world around the robot. Usually they have proprioceptive sensing- sensing of the robot’s internal position- but not always, the lack of proprioception on the mine crawler at the Crandal Canyon Utah mine disaster was a big problem. Many of the Operator Control Units had icons representing the relative position of the flippers, taking advantage of the proprioception. But there’s a third category of sensing- exproprioception: where is the body relative to the world? Am I stuck? About to fall over? Is my arm under a rock? Exproprioception is clearly important. And extremely difficult to do without a “skin” and good spatial reasoning.
So the teams are trying to get exproprioception through exteroception. That’s common in bomb squads and I’ve heard it referred to as the “we’ll just stick another camera on it” non-solution. That leads to challenges in the operator’s attention and situation awareness- which camera to look at, when? Also note that the higher the camera, the better the view. But the higher the camera, the less likely it can be used for a real response where the voids are less than 1m high and anything that sticks up or out snags. It’s a tough problem and hopefully one of these groups will find a more optimal solution.
Sadly, I saw perhaps 2 women total on the teams. We had hoped that the societal relevance of rescue robotics would help attract women to computer science and engineering but there was no evidence here. Hopefully, the lack of women is a fluke.