Human Brain’s Light Processing Ability Could Lead to Better Robotic Sensing

Jorgen Pedersen, President and CEO, RE2 Robotics, a leading developer of intelligent mobile manipulation systems. The company is committed to creating manipulator arms with human-like performance, intuitive robot interfaces and advanced autonomy capabilities for use in any environment.Utilizing artificial intelligence, computer vision, and machine learning, the innovative robotic systems can operate with humans in the loop or autonomously depending upon the application.

What initially attracted you to robotics?

When I was in high-school, I thought my path in life was going to be art.  Then along came movies like “Top Gun” and “The Right Stuff,” which motivated me to want to first become a pilot, followed by an astronaut.  With my sights set, I focused more on math and science and applied to the Air Force Academy.  I didn’t get in.  It was a blow, but being driven by “cool factor” at age 18, I soon came up with the idea that making a humanoid robot go to space was the next best thing.  So I applied to engineering schools and was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University.  Once there, I soon found the Robotics Institute.  Within their walls, I saw some amazing robots at the time including “Ambler,” a really huge robot that was going to walk around Mars; I found Dante, a robot that was going to walk into a volcano; I found Navlab, one of the first robots to drive across America autonomously; and many more.  I was hooked at that point.  I knew what I wanted to do – build robots!

Before launching RE2 Robotics you were a member of the National Robotics Engineering Center (NREC) an operating unit within Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute (RI), the world’s largest robotics research and development organization. Could you discuss the experience of working there at such a pivotal time in robotics history?

It was an honor to be one of the original twelve people who opened the NREC’s doors and began the commercialization of robotics beyond the factory floor.  I was exposed to real-world problems, working with customers such as Caterpillar, New Holland (now Case New Holland), Joy Mining, and others to apply the fundamental robotics research coming out of the university and create proof that the world is ready for robotics.  It was up to us to dispel the skeptics and generate a cultural shift toward the perception of robotics beyond manufacturing and material handling.  There was something special about those early years and the people who launched the NREC into what it is today.  Yes, the early members were smart and motivated, but there was a level of fortitude that is rarely as pervasive in an organization as was seen then.  There was a contagious attitude of perseverance and resourcefulness that drove us to redesign the hardware, relook at the code, or improvise based on the limitations of the technology of that day.

When did the idea of launching RE2 Robotics originate?

I left the NREC in 2000 to join a robotics start-up company that was focused on industrial floor cleaning using robots.  Although I learned a lot about commercializing robots, the company struggled and I decided to set my sights elsewhere, but I was I was not sure where.  While I was figuring out what to do next, I decided to consult back to the NREC.  In order to do this, I formed a company called “Robotics Engineering Excellence,” or “RE2” for short, which incubated at the NREC for the first five years.  Little did I know that the “temporary” robotics engineering company that was formed in 2001 would turn into a leading provider of intelligent mobile manipulation solutions.

RE2 Robotics chose to focus exclusively on robotic arms instead of robots in general such as competitor Boston Dynamics. Why was this chosen as the core focus?

For the first five years of our existence, RE2 was truly a contract engineering firm that served the NREC, solving many hard problems, including the DARPA Perception for Off-Road Mobility program.   Beyond overcoming technical challenges, I knew that I wanted to see the robots that we were developing used in the real world.  With that, we won our first Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant with the Department of Defense.  The topic was focused on making small, lightweight modular robotic arms for the Unmanned Ground Vehicles (UGVs) being used in Iraq and Afghanistan for remotely defusing IEDs.  The concept of saving lives through the use of robotics was appealing to me.  Additionally, there was an urgent need for this technology, meaning that I knew that we would be able to field our technology in the near term.  Finally, this initial SBIR program revealed a deficiency in the market – there were no strong mobile manipulation offerings.  Most mobile robotics companies were focused on moving through and perceiving the world.  Few were focused on physically interacting with the world.  Why?  Manipulating the physical world is difficult.  Robotic arms are typically an order of magnitude more complex than the mobile platform to which you mount it.  Over time, we have advanced the physical designs to near-human capability.  Today, we continue to advance the Artificial Intelligence (AI) and computer vision algorithms that allow for automation nearly anywhere on the planet.

One of the RE2 Robotics dual-arm systems is being used for cleanup at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi Nuclear Power Station in Japan. Could you discuss some of the unique challenges of designing a robot for this type of environment?

We actually never designed a robot for radiological environments.  We designed a human-like robotic system called Highly Dexterous Manipulation System (HDMS), which was intended to be placed on small UGVs used by Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team to defuse threats like IEDs.  The military requirements, however, dictated that HDMS needed to be able to withstand major temperature fluctuations, deal with inclement weather, handle shock and vibration, etc.  It turns out that the strict requirements imposed by the U.S. Army created a system that has been able to hold up even at Fukushima.  The system has been in operation for over a year and a half now.

RE2 Robotics designs impressive robots that can be used in the ocean to diffuse Waterborne Improvised Explosive Devices (WBIEDs) and mines. Outside of the corrosive effects of extended saltwater exposure, what are some of the other challenges that roboticists need to overcome?

Our Maritime Dexterous Manipulation System (MDMS) is designed to operate in both shallow and deep ocean waters.  Designing an electro-mechanical solution that works in deeper waters requires special engineering designs for dealing with the incredible pressures seen below 100 meters below sea level.  Additionally, since our arms are mounted on Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs), we had to consider the dynamic impacts that arms impart on the UUV while both swimming and physically interacting with the environment.  As a result, MDMS is neutrally buoyant, meaning that the arms are weightless in water.

Out of all the different types of robotic arms that have been designed by RE2 Robotics which one do you personally find the most impressive?

This is a difficult question for me to answer.  The fact that MDMS provides human performance in deep ocean water is very impressive, but the robotic arm we first developed for the Navy’s ground-based Advanced EOD Robotic System (AEODRS) program 10 years ago, was most impressive to me.  This arm had four degrees of freedom, a gripper, and an embedded manipulator controller, all packed into a 4-pound weather-proof, power-efficient solution that could lift more than its weight at full extension and move that weight at 120 degrees per second.  This was an engineering feat that moved the needle of what is possible.  As a result, since proving the concept with that first Navy arm, RE2’s robotic arms continue to feature incredible strength-to-weight ratios in a rugged package with built-in intelligence.

Currently most of your market involves military applications such as defusing mines. What are some other vertical markets that RE2 Robotics will be penetrating?

In 2018, RE2 broadened its reach and applied its intelligent mobile manipulation to other vertical markets to include aviation and medical.  Today, RE2 is 70% commercial and 30% defense, even though defense revenue has also grown since 2018.  Although we cannot publically disclose the specifics of our commercial work currently, at a high level, RE2 is applying it manipulation expertise for use in surgical robots as well as for the maintenance of aircraft.  RE2 is continuing to evaluate markets that need to automate in areas where only humans could previously go, to increase throughput, to keep human’s out of harm’s way, to improve quality, or to serve as a force multiplier.

Is there anything else that you would like to share about RE2 Robotics?

For nearly 20 years, RE2 has pushed the envelope of what is physically possible regarding robotic arms. RE2’s arms have been designed from the ground up to exhibit near-human performance in a compact form that can go where humans go. Today, by applying computer vision, machine learning and artificial intelligence to our technology, we continue to advance the boundaries of what is possible with mobile manipulation. Our computer-vision module, RE2 Detect, gives our systems the capability to perceive the world. RE2 Intellect, our AI-driven autonomy module, enables our systems to reason and interpret what they see, allowing them to autonomously manipulate objects in both indoor and outdoor environments.

Thank you for the great interview, I look forward to following your progress, readers who wish to learn more should visit RE2 Robotics.

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