Robotics

机器人学

Robots that can walk are now striding to market

能够行走的机器人正在走向市场

They will be able to go where people can, but existing bots cannot

它们将能够去人类去的地方,但现有的机器人不行


They might appear cutesy, but a pair of robots that turned up recently at the Ford Motor Company’s Van Dyke Transmission Plant, in Detroit, are practical working machines. They may, indeed, point to the future of automation. Putting robots into factories is hardly a new idea—some 2.4m of them are already at work in plants around the world. But most of these are little more than giant arms, bolted firmly to the ground, that weld and paint things. Those few that have the mobility to manage tasks like delivering components do so by scooting along on wheels. The new devices at Van Dyke are rather different sorts of beasts. They can walk.

它们可能看起来忸怩作态,但最近位于底特律市福特汽车公司的Van Dyke变速器制造工厂出现的一对机器人是实用的作业装置,它们可能标志着自动化的未来。让机器人走进工厂不是什么新理念,已经有约240万台机器人在世界各地的工厂里工作,但多数是用螺栓固定在地面的巨大机械臂,用来完成焊接和喷涂工作。少数具有机动性的机器人被用来完成运送零部件等任务,依靠轮子在地面滑行。出现在Van Dyke工厂里的新装置截然不同,它们能够行走。


Over the years, factory plans get out of date as things are moved around and new equipment is brought in. Surveying the transmission plant by hand would take weeks and cost some $300,000. Ford reckons that Fluffy and Spot, which can both climb stairs and crawl into hard-to-reach areas, will cut the time required by half and complete the job for “a fraction of the cost”. Although Ford is leasing the robots, Boston Dynamics has now put them on sale for $75,000 a pop. At that price they would soon pay for themselves doing tasks like the one being undertaken in Van Dyke.

多年以来,随着物品的四处搬迁和新设备的引进,工厂的规划已经过时。人工测量变速器制造工厂耗费数周时间,耗资三十万美元。 “毛绒绒”和“斑点”都能爬楼梯,钻进人类难以到达的地方,福特汽车公司估算这能节省一半时间,耗费“一小部分成本”就能完成任务。尽管福特汽车公司在租用这些机器人,但波士顿动力公司现在也出售它们,售价为每台75000美元。如果被用来完成Van Dyke工厂那样的任务,这个价位很快就能回本。

The Spot range is the first of Boston Dynamics’s walking robots to be commercialised. More such machines are starting to appear from other firms and research groups. Some are also quadrupeds. Others are bipedal. The two-legged sort can be more agile and, if equipped with arms as well, are better suited to tasks like picking things up or operating controls. What all of these machines have in common is that they represent—forgive the pun—a huge step forward in robot locomotion.

“斑点”系列是波士顿动力公司首次推出的商业化行走机器人。其他企业和研究团队也在开始制造这类装置,既有四足也有双足机器人。双足机器人更加敏捷,加装双臂更适合拾取物品或操纵装置等任务。这些装置的共同点是,它们标志着机器人移动方式的巨大进步。

Four legs good, two legs better

四足不错,双足更好

If robots are to go where people go, they need to be able to move in the way that people move. Wheels are useless for navigating much of the world—just ask anyone who uses a wheelchair, says Aaron Ames, a robotics expert at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). “We can make robots walk really well now,” he says. Such robots can, though, look a little odd. When a torso with two legs attached strolls out of Dr Ames’s laboratory it causes a bit of a sensation on Caltech’s campus. But this is something people are going to have to get used to, because many more are coming.

如果机器人要去人类去的地方,它们需要以人类的行走方式进行移动。轮子在多数环境下是没用的,问问使用轮椅的人都知道,美国加州理工学院的机器人专家亚伦·艾姆斯说道。“我们现在能使机器人非常好地行走”,他说道。但这种机器人看起来有点怪,当它的躯干依靠双腿走出艾姆斯博士的实验室时,在加州理工大学引起了一些轰动。但人们必须习惯这种机器人,因为未来将有更多问世。

Problems remain, and improvements are needed. “But once we get there, we are going to have millions of walking robots in human environments,” says Jonathan Hurst, co-founder of Agility Robotics, a firm based in Albany, Oregon. It has just launched Digit, a bipedal, two-armed robot which has the look of an ostrich about it. At present, Digit costs $250,000. But it is early days. As more walking robots are put to work their development will accelerate and their production volumes increase, bringing the cost of a machine like Digit down to the tens of thousands of dollars.

问题依然存在,改进是必要的。“一旦解决了,数百万台行走机器人将出现在人类世界”,位于美国俄勒冈州奥尔巴尼市的敏捷机器人公司的联合创始人乔纳森·赫斯特说道。该公司最近推出名为“数字”的双足双臂机器人,外观类似于鸵鸟。目前,“数字”机器人造价25万美元,但现在是初期阶段。随着更多的行走机器人被投入作业,它们的发展将加快,产量将增加,从而使“数字”这类装置的成本降至几万美元。

This process is similar to the emergence of flying drones. They once cost millions, and had limited uses, until researchers worked out how to make small aircraft hover using multiple co-ordinated rotors. These devices could fly easily and autonomously. Prices fell to $500 or less, and multi-rotor drones are now employed for all manner of jobs, from cinematography to aerial surveying to delivering packages. Some in the field of robotics think walking robots have started down a similar path.

这一过程类似于无人机的问世。它们曾经造价几百万美元,用途有限,直到研究人员发现如何利用相互协同的多旋翼使小型飞行器在空中盘旋。这些装置可以轻松自动飞行,价格降至500美元以下,如今的多旋翼无人机用途广泛,包括摄影、航空测量、运送包裹。机器人学领域有人认为,行走机器人走上了与无人机类似的发展道路。


Stroll on!

漫步!

The way that humans walk is sometimes described by biomechanists as controlled falling. Making a stride involves swinging a leg out and placing it down with small subconscious corrections to maintain stability as the mass of the body above it shifts forward. Each leg works like a spring. These movements are predictable, and in recent years researchers have found out how to model them mathematically. Together with better actuators to operate a robot’s limbs, and sensors which can measure things more accurately, these models have made it possible to recreate this style of walking in robots. It does not require any fancy machine learning or artificial intelligence to do so, just good old-fashioned computation, adds Dr Ames.

人类的走路方式有时被生物机械学家称为控制下落。走路时需要迈出一条腿并落下,当上半身的重量前倾时,潜意识里做小幅调整以保持躯体稳定,每条腿的工作原理类似弹簧。这些运动是可预测的,近几年研究人员知道了如何为它们数学建模。配合更好的执行机构来操纵机器人肢体,以及传感器更加准确地测量物体,这些模型才有可能使人类的行走方式重现在机器人身上。这不需要任何复杂的机器学习或人工智能就能做到,只需要传统的良好运算。

The difference between Asimo’s gait and that of the new breed of bot is striking. Whereas Asimo’s chunky legs look leaden, Digit strides confidently along on a lean pair of limbs, happily swinging its arms as it goes. Atlas (pictured), an experimental humanoid made by Boston Dynamics, is more capable still. It can walk, run, jump and even perform backflips. Asimo did a lot of celebrity photo-opps, but it never went into production. Honda quietly stopped work on the project in 2018, to concentrate on more “practical” forms of robotics, such as mobility devices for the elderly.

阿西莫与新型机器人的步态有着明显差异。阿西莫的粗短腿看起来步履沉重,“数字“自信满满地迈着一双瘦长腿,边走边愉快地摆动双臂。波士顿动力公司制造的实验性人形机器人“阿特拉斯”能力更强,它能行走、奔跑、跳跃、甚至后空翻。“阿西莫”留下过许多明星照,但从未投入生产。本田公司在2018年默默地停止了该项目的研发,专注于更加“实用性”的机器人,比如为老年人研发的移动装置。


Another example of art evolving to imitate nature occurred during the design of Digit. This inherited its ostrich looks from Cassie, a two-legged torso which Agility sold to a number of research groups. Cassie’s developers had to find a way to stop some of the robot’s actuator motors from working against each other. Their solution turned out to look like a pair of bird’s legs.

“数字”机器人的设计是模仿大自然的又一杰作。它继承了有躯干双足机器人“凯西”的鸵鸟外观,敏捷机器人公司曾将“凯西”卖给许多研究团队。“凯西”的开发人员必须想办法解决有些伺服电机相互干扰的问题,解决办法看起来就像一双鸟腿。


The arms can perform other useful tasks, too, such as moving boxes in a warehouse. Digit can carry up to 20kg. Distributing and delivering goods is likely to be an important application for walking robots, reckons Dr Hurst, especially now that e-commerce has boomed as a result of restrictions imposed in the wake of covid-19. Some automated distribution centres are set up for conventional fixed and wheeled robotic systems, but these have usually been built this way from scratch. Most warehouses are designed around people. Robots with legs, which move in a similar way to human workers, would fit right in.

双臂也能完成其他有用的任务,比如在仓库中搬运货箱。“数字”机器人搬运的货物可重达20公斤。郝思特博士认为,配送货物可能成为行走机器人的一项重要用途,尤其是新冠疫情带来的诸多限制使电子商务繁荣起来。有些自动化物流配送中心针对的是传统固定式和轮式机器人系统,但这种建造方式往往从零开始。大多数仓库是针对人类而设计,足式机器人适合这种环境,它们的移动方式与人类工人相似。



Exactly how this might be done remains to be seen. Unless they are on a preprogrammed mission, most mobile robots require an operator to provide basic instructions to, say, proceed to a certain point. The robot then walks there by itself, avoiding obstacles and climbing or descending steps and stairs along the way. This means a walking robot making door-to-door deliveries might need some kind of digital map of the neighbourhood, to know in advance the paths it can traverse and the flower beds it should avoid. That might involve a big data-acquisition effort, much like those used to build digital maps for driverless cars. Similarly, in a factory or a warehouse, a walking robot would need to be shown the ropes by a human being before it was let loose to work on its own.

具体如何做到有待于观察,除非让它们执行预先编程的任务,否则移动式机器人需要操作人员输入基本指令前往指定地点。机器人自己走到目的地,一路上避开障碍物,爬楼梯或台阶。这意味着行走机器人送货上门可能需要某种居住区数字地图,才能预先知道移动路线和需要避开的花坛。这可能需要大规模的数据采集,就像为无人驾驶汽车建立数字地图一样。同样,在工厂或仓库里,行走机器人需要有人给它展示绳索,然后才能让它独立工作。

Self determination

自主决策


In the meantime, the new generation of robots now being developed will keep building up the machines’ capabilities. At Boston Dynamics Mr Perry reckons that, besides surveying, Spot will find many roles in inspection and maintenance. Such robots can, for instance, enter hazardous environments like electrical substations without them having to be taken off the grid, as is necessary whenever a human engineer goes inside.

与此同时,开发中的新一代机器人将不断增强能力。波士顿动力公司的佩里先生认为,除了测量用途,“斑点”机器人还将在检查与维修中发挥许多作用。例如,这种机器人可进入变电站这样的危险环境作业,变电站不必与电网断开,而人类工程师在任何时候进入前必须断开。

Instead of just looking for problems, Spot’s next trick will be to take action to resolve them, such as throwing a switch or turning a valve. It will do this with a single manipulator arm which makes it look less like a dog and more like a long-necked Brachiosaurus. A prototype of this configuration is already running around the company’s offices, opening and shutting doors.

“斑点”机器人不仅能检查问题,另一项本领是采取行动解决问题,比如推动开关或旋转阀门。它将使用单只机械臂来这样做,这使它看起来不像狗,更像长颈蜿龙。这种构造的原型机已经在该公司办公室里跑来跑去、开关房门了。

This version of Spot should go on sale next year. As for Atlas, Boston Dynamics’s humanoid, that is currently too expensive to spawn a commercial version. But the lessons being learnt from it will help provide the engineering needed for other robots to come, says Mr Perry.

该版本的“斑点”机器人将于明年上市。至于波士顿动力公司的“阿特拉斯”人形机器人目前由于造价太高而尚未推出商业版,但从它身上积累的经验将有助于为未来其他机器人提供必要的工程技术。