In early October, I met a robot dog in person for the first time when I attended IROS 2023 in Detroit.
Because I’ve been keeping up with legged robots since 2006 when I designed one at Cal Poly, I shouldn’t have been startled. But it made quite an impact seeing it run across the carpet in the room with me. What a long way we’ve come!
I felt fortunate to participate in an event of such international status. Last year it was in Japan and next year it’s in the UAE—much harder for this Michigander to attend! While there, I was able to attend insightful talks by industry leaders, learn more about key trends in robotics research, and see what innovative companies are doing throughout the world as I walked the show.
IROS Presentation Recaps
Marcie O’Malley gave an insightful and nuanced plenary presentation about haptic feedback and her work with Meta to develop haptic feedback devices that work well without being cumbersome or off-putting.
Robotics research covers an ever-wider set of topics. It now integrates into so many fields that, as Dr. O’Malley mentioned in her talk, it’s hard to define what counts as robotics. This is something I also gleaned from Dan Chuparkoff recently at the culmination of the DISHER Design Series. He said that modern robotics might be called Embodied Computing. I do think that’s a good term. It’s a catch-all for the whole intersection between computed information and the physical world.
Robotics Research Themes
There was far too much research presented for me to take it all in. I’ll mention a couple of themes that interested me:
Agricultural robotics is advancing as a strategy. The ability to grow food densely for an increasing population without sacrificing sustainability is a big trend. It’s not just for harvesting fields and greenhouses, but also for livestock-related activities and maintaining the health and performance of ecosystems more holistically. For instance, a team from the University of Illinois, supported by EarthSense among others, described sensing and mapping soil carbon content using neutron scattering, with an eye toward carbon capture and soil quality.
Assistive Robotics continues to make great strides (pun intended) toward a world in which anybody can be able. This requires progress in things like exoskeleton robots and haptic feedback as well as anthropometrics, vision systems, computational frameworks for understanding human intent, and even adaptive architecture and interior design. Assistive robotics also spills over widely into teaching and training, whether that’s robots instructing people or the other way around. For example, a team from the University of Bonn presented their findings on how a robotic system might search a domestic cabinet or shelf to see what it contains, pushing items to look behind them if necessary.
Exhibitors at the Show
Alongside research poster presentations and an autonomous RC car race, dozens of companies and vendors filled out the exhibit hall at IROS. Most of them are working to make the state-of-the-art more accessible for new research and new products. I was most interested in the cool new component vendors. Here are a few of my favorites that I will be watching as a Product Development Engineer:
Sol Robotics: A capable, 3-meter arm that they packed in their carry-on suitcases! This inexpensive cobot could open some intriguing new spaces where robots typically haven’t been feasible.
Resense: Fantastically small 6-axis force/torque sensors and drivers, down to 8mm diameter. (with a thru-hole!) I hope they can build up their production volume quickly so they can get more accessible.
ESTAT Actuation: Wafer-thin, electro-adhesive clutches that consume almost no power while holding large loads, both torque and linear. They operate silently and produce no magnetic fields.
Haply: A compelling haptic input device shaped like a pen. I really want one of these after testing out their demo. The price was affordable enough that almost any business could consider it.
Westwood Robotics: A US company offering next-gen actuators with high peak-speed and peak-torque. Here’s the recipe for this type of actuator: low inertia + fine positioning + fast torque sensing = dexterous.
Direct Drive Tech: A Chinese company offering similar motors for robotic joints and wheel hubs. They also sell a scrappy little robot called Diablo and are soon releasing the more capable Tita.
As robotics starts to intersect so many other industries, I am excited to see what new synergies we might find. How are you seeing embodied computing come to your field of expertise?