Friday, May 21, 2010

Real-world robotics reality check

This week's European Land Robotics trials (ELROB) in the beautiful countryside of Hammelburg provided the assembled roboticists with a salutary lesson in real world robotics. The harsh reality is that problems such as localisation, path planning and navigation, which most roboticists would regard as having been solved, remain very serious challenges in unstructured outdoor environments. Techniques that work perfectly in the lab, or the university car park, are very seriously challenged by a forest track in the rain or at night.

Having said that there were some deeply impressive demonstrations of fully autonomous operation by university teams - such as the University of Hannover's vehicle Hanna which deservedly took away one of the ELROB 2010 innovation awards. You're a robot: imagine having to navigate your way autonomously through several km of forest track at night; the only map you have is inaccurate and out of date and just 4 (GPS) waypoints are provided at the start of your 1 hour timeslot. There are no trial or practice runs for you to survey the track beforehand, and (just in case it might be too easy) there are unknown obstacles which require you to autonomously backtrack to the last fork and take an alternative route. A good indication of how tough this was is the fact that other (commercial) tele-operated robots, perhaps surprisingly, fared no better than their autonomous rivals. Having spent a cold couple of hours looking over the shoulders of 2 team members: one tele-operating his robot, the other (nervously) tracking his autonomous robot's progress on a laptop, it was clear to me that in an this environment tele-operation is - if anything - harder than autonomy. Or perhaps it would be fairer to say that neither tele-operation or autonomy is yet fully up to this kind of task.

I left ELROB wishing that my robotics research colleagues who never venture outside their labs could have witnessed this and, as I did, experience the harsh reality-check of real world robotics.