Luis Sentis

Photo Credit: Daulton Venglar | Daily Texan Staff

In discussing the future of robots Wednesday, Luis Sentis, mechanical engineering assistant professor, said the University will have an important role for research in the area of robotics. 

“Texas and Austin are a very important hub for technologies, competitions in high-tech and for robotics,” Sentis said. 

“Dreamer,” a robot developed by Sentis and the University’s Human Centered Robotics lab, held up the “Hook ’em Horns” hand sign and waved hello to attendees of the lecture, held in the Jackson Geological Sciences Building and hosted by UT Libraries as part of its “Science Study Breaks” series. The talk featured movie clips with robots from movies such as “Pacific Rim” and “Transformers: Age of Extinction,” both of which featured Dreamer. 

Sentis talked about working with the lab to create a robot that would eventually help those with disabilities. 

Travis Llado, a research assistant for the lab, said they hope to have a wheelbase operating in the next few weeks that would allow Dreamer to move on various surfaces. 

“We have a wheelbase that carries Dreamer around, but it can’t move on any surfaces beyond linoleum,” Llado said. “So we wanted one that could go off road.”

Kwan Suk Kim, mechanical engineering graduate student, has also been involved in the lab.

“Actually, nowadays, a lot of people are worried about the safety of robots,” Kim said. “Specifically, we’re focusing on the safety issue of robots.”

Kim said they are continuing to work on Dreamer as more labs on campus improve further robot technology. Sentis said he worked with Honda to develop robots that can mimic human actions. Sentis said these robots could assist in daily activities for humans.

“These robots can work as service and industrial mobile workers,” Sentis said. “They can do assembly, welding and painting.”

Along with their potential for helping people with disabilities, Sentis said researchers would like to make robots more safe and cost-effective.

“They’re also being realistic about the costs of robotics,” Sentis said.

According to Sentis, the implementation of robots in assembly lines would lead to job loss.

“Robotics will eliminate human labor in some applications by 2030,” Sentis said.

Sentis said he hopes to see robots eventually implemented into various activities for many people.

“We’re trying to blend them into our daily lives,” Sentis said. “We can sort of simulate all the possible outcomes for people with disabilities.”

A UT engineering research team is developing a robot to compete in a government-sponsored robotics competition that will test the robot’s ability to perform tasks in emergency situations.

The team will compete against other American and international teams in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Robotics Challenge on Dec. 21.

Engineering assistant professor Luis Sentis is leading the team, which is collaborating with NASA to develop Valkyrie, a robot designed to complete eight tasks often needed in disaster scenarios.

Engineering graduate student Chien-Liang Fok said the challenge is important because building robots that can act as first responders in disaster scenarios can help keep people safe.

“Robots can do things and go places that real first responders simply cannot go due to the dangerous environment,” Fok said.

Disasters such as the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan prompted the U.S. government to set aside money for competitions such as the DARPA Robotics Challenge, Sentis said.

“Existing technology is only able to provide observation of dangerous environments,” engineering graduate student Nicholas Paine said. “If the DARPA Robotics Challenge is successful, the robots developed for the challenge may be the first iteration of a technology capable of not only observing dangerous environments but also acting in them to prevent loss of life and property.”

Paine said each task is actually made up of many individual functions. Paine said when Valkryie climbs a ladder, it must do multiple individual actions such as lifting its left leg and grasping an object with its right hand, Paine’s said his role in the project is to ensure that when individual commands are given to Valkyrie’s 44 joints, the actions are performed successfully and accurately.

“DARPA set a very high bar in the task list they chose for the challenge,” Paine said. “At the beginning of the challenge, most of these tasks had never been completed by any robot.”

Paine said he thinks cost issues will prevent robots like Valkyrie from being used by entities other than governments and large corporations.

“These robots are very high-end machines, not hobbies,” Sentis said. “Each of them costs probably $4 to $5 million.”

Paine said some companies, such as Rethink Robotics and Unbounded Robotics, are trying to produce more affordable robots, but right now, these robots have limited mobility and are best suited for use in structured environments, such as office buildings. In the next five to 10 years, Paine said these kinds of robots will be used more widely.

Fok said in the future, robots will have more important roles, including assisting first responders in disaster scenarios. He said people will probably take their presence and services for granted in the coming future.

“At 20 years, I hope that some of the technology being developed for the DRC will be able to walk, crawl and climb its way out of the lab,” Paine said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the agency. It is the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Project Agency.

Photo Credit: Shweta Gulati | Daily Texan Staff

In their research to develop robots that can safely and more seamlessly interact with humans, mechanical engineering researchers may have also created a movie star. Dreamer, a humanoid — or human-like — robot, will get up to 30 seconds of screen time in Michael Bay’s “Transformers: Age of Exctinction” alongside actor Mark Wahlberg.

Dr. Luis Sentis, mechancial engineering assistant professor, established the Human Centered Robotics Lab, which created Dreamer. Right now, Sentis said, the most popular application of robotics is in factories. Their tasks are repetitive and usually away from people, he said.

“Why are they away from people? Because [robots] are not safe,” Sentis said.

According to Sentis, making robots safer is a difficult challenge. Robots tend to be heavy, so Sentis and other researchers at the Human Centered Robotics Lab are trying to make light-weight robots. Sentis said the software and how the robots respond to touch — to make them more compliant or better able to be in the same space as humans — still needs
more development.

“The robots — they need to be able to obviously be practical for human needs,” Sentis said.

Kwan Suk Kim, mechanical engineering graduate student, also works with Sentis in the lab. Kim said controlling the amount of force the Dreamer and other humanoid robots apply to tasks or objects is one of the main challenges in making robots safe to work with as a human. 

Prashant Rao, mechanical engineering graduate student, is a researcher at the Rehabilitation and Neuromuscular Robotics Lab. One of the projects the lab is working on is a device called the Exoskeleton for Hand-wrist Rehabilation, which a person can use during physical therapy to recover motor function. Prashant said the lab is also collaborating with Sentis’ lab to use the exoskeleton to remotely control the Dreamer.

“I may make the Dreamer’s arm do whatever my finger’s doing,” Prashant said. “I can switch the control to say, now if I move my arm, the whole body of the Dreamer will move.”

Lowering the costs of building the robot is another consideration made by the lab, which will be important in integrating the robots into new industries and areas of society.

“In two years, we want to make our robot[s] safe and cheap,” Kim said. “Dreamer cost about $500,000. Our new target price is $10,000.”

Sentis said the goal is to cut costs from a city or government organization perspective. For example, maintaining city infrastructure costs millions of dollars. Sentis said some future applications of the robots could include distributing food, cleaning sidewalks and maintaining neighborhoods.

Sentis said he hopes humanoid robots will eventually interact more directly with humans — in cities, company buildings, university campuses and in homes, for instance.

“In 20 years, it will be similar to “I, Robot” where everyone can have a humanoid robot to clean and do simple chores,” Kim said.