Monday, July 6, 2009

When the robot is smarter than you...

...then you had best let it drive!

Teleoperation is one of the largest growth areas for robotics. All kinds of robots are being used in situations that are dangerous to people: battlefields, burning buildings, defusing bombs, etc. I don't know about you, but when I defuse a bomb or do any other precision work I like to have all of my senses about me. Heck, I like to have all of my senses about me when I'm walking down the street. You couldn't pay me enough to remove one of my senses or any of the well-tuned reflexes that my body has developed over time.

So why is it when we ARE paying people to build robots we ignore most of those sense? In many of the tele-operated robots I've seen you one sense: a teeny camera. And you have two little sticks that move your tracks or wheels. That's it. And what happens? You drive your robot around half blind into walls. Somehow when we design robots for autonomous operation we give them all kinds of sensors and instructions for how to deal with their input. If an autonomous robot saw it was about to run into a wall it would correct itself and move on. But somehow when we put a human in the loop we forget how difficult it is to control these things so we give it a camera and call it done. There's a human in the loop so why bother?

Why not give a teleoperated robot the same senses and reflexes we give the autonomous ones? The same senses and reflexes we ourselves couldn't function without. If a human operator is about to ram the robot into a wall then DON'T LET HIM! Put ultrasound transducers on there and when the wall gets too close stop. Chances are you're not trying to run into the wall but instead run parallel to it. Then this behavior works perfectly. Get more in-depth with it. There are cars now that will auto-parallel park. This is amazing and probably safer than letting me do it myself. Robots should do the same thing. For any complicated tele-operation there should be a way to do it automatically. Most people can't back up a truck to a loading dock without someone watching for them. Is this any different?

One obvious application of these ideas is an area that technically isn't tele-operation: powered wheelchairs. Have you seen them? They are beyond dumb as far as controls and intelligence are concerned. They consist largely of a battery, motors and a way to steer. Of course, at this stage of the design life for powered wheelchairs the main problems they are dealing with is not enough power and not enough battery life. But when these are dealt with you'll still have a powered wheelchair that is more than happy to run into anything faster than it could before, and for a longer duration!

For the sake of pedestrians in the vicinity and the paint jobs of objects nearby wheelchairs should be semi-autonomous. I hate to make generalizations but for the most part older people's reflexes and fine motor control are on a downward trend. For the people confined to wheelchairs it's likely very well gone. And there are many diseases that impair fine motor control. It's not right to expect our senior citizens to be able to control their wheelchairs perfectly with a joystick (in fact I wouldn't count on anybody's ability to control such a device with a joystick - the input method has to be somewhat tailored to the system being controlled and a joystick doesn't move the same way a wheelchair does).

The most basic of features you could put into a semi-autonomous wheelchair would be obstacle avoidance. All the walls would be safe as attempting to run directly into them would cause the chair to stop a few feet in front. You could not worry about crowding out others if the wheelchair by default hugged a wall as it moved forward and if it deftly maneuvered around a door frame without significant interaction then so much the better. If you wanted to sit at a table without knocking your feet on the table legs just have the automatic systems do it. Perfect fit every time. You could even define more advanced algorithms. If you wanted to be able to open a door from the wheelchair you'd need to move within arms' range of the handle, turn it, then prop the door open with the wheelchair and move through. It might require some extra hardware and a lot of testing to be able to identify the door frame, back up, prop it open, etc. But the benefit to someone who couldn't open that door before would be significant.

Let's face it - no one wants to be stuck in a chair. People weren't designed to move around in chairs we were designed to walk. Trying to adapt our thinking and motor skills to a physical system totally different than our natural method of locomotion is difficult for anyone. Automatic systems can and should make this easier on those who have no other choice. It's an improvement for quality of life for everyone involved just to let the robot do some of the driving for you.