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New Insight Into Robots By Blind Fish

Clever as a blind fish, the underwater robot "Snookie" can orient itself in murky waters with an artificial sensory organ inspired by the so-called lateral-line system, found in fish and some amphibians. The experimental vehicle was developed by researchers at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen within the framework of the CoTeSys (Cognition for Technical Techniques) excellence cluster. In the future, the researchers anticipate such capabilities to allow underwater robots to perform autonomously in operations ranging from deep sea exploration to inspection of sewer pipes.
Traditional robots are strong. Inhospitable environments, toxic and corrosive gases, low light levels, moisture, dirt and disease mean nothing to them -- unlike human beings, for whom such circumstances are generally unbearable. Nevertheless, these robots - the ones usually in use these days - can only do their job given that they're precisely programmed to take every action.
Autonomous robots, on the other hand, will within the foreseeable future be capable to react intelligently to their surroundings and carry out their tasks largely independently. Rather than being strictly programmed, they rely on their own sensory perceptions. This is after all the only way where they can recognize the situation they're in and still fulfill their tasks. Nevertheless, in tough environments their senses often fail them, laid low by fumes, dust, water, or high temperatures. Brand new senses are known as for -- perhaps even sensory organs of the type that human beings lack.
A new research task undertaken through the CoTeSys (Cognition for Technical Systems) excellence cluster in Munich aims to produce the technology to master such new senses. Biophysicist Prof. Leo van Hemmen of the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) has higher hopes that the animal kingdom will supply the means to allow robots to perceive their surroundings. Fish, scorpions, even frogs, for example, understand things that continue to be hidden to human organs. Not only are they able to detect minute pressure variations and vibrations and identify risks, they use these senses to form an exact image of their surroundings, enabling them at every moment to decide, for instance, how best to seize their prey or how to hide themselves behind a defensive barrier. Prof. van Hemmen and his colleagues are researching just how animals do this, studying the algorithms with which their brains record their environment and producing hardware and computer programs to permit robots to mimic them.
Fish and amphibians for instance have an organ, the lateral line, which is non-existent in land animals. With this sensory organ, which stretches along the both sides of the body, they are capable to experience minute variations in strain and current flow. As a result they're able, even in murky water, to form a really detailed picture of their immediate surroundings at a range of about the length of their body. They know exactly where obstacles lie, where dangers lurk, and exactly where their prey are to become discovered. Lateral lines are composed of hundreds or even thousands of good sensory hairs that are located in tiny ducts under the skin and that register even tiny changes in flow velocity. The African clawed frog Xenopus laevis for example distinguishes between edible and inedible insects on the basis of water-borne vibrations. In terms of accuracy, these sensors are equivalent with the human inner ear, where hundreds of thousands of fine sensory hairs enable us to differentiate between sounds -- from the sigh from the wind to a symphony.
However, the complex part is not the sensor itself, but how the signals it sends are processed to produce a complete picture of the surrounding region. Differences in pressure are a lot more hard to accurately pin down than waves of light. We human beings comprehend the issue when a sound gets our focus and our eyes instantly seek out the source of the sound to confirm the location. Scorpions, about the other hand, use small vibrations sent through the ground to discover their prey, even within the dark of night: These arachnids have sensory hairs on their eight legs, and their brains analyze the smallest distinctions in the timing of vibration waves within the sand to identify exactly where their prey is located. Similar algorithms could be used to examine the lateral line perceptions of fish.
A favorite instance studied by the researchers in Munich is the blind Mexican cave fish Astyanax. As a cave-dweller it has no need of sight in the darkness, and as the fish ages its eyes degenerate. Nevertheless, it has no difficulty in navigating its pitch-black habitat, reacting flexibly to changes and changing rapidly to new environments. The truth that robots can learn to do so too is demonstrated by "Snookie," an underwater robot built by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and technical professionals headed by Prof. van Hemmen.
"Snookie" - named after a species of perch with a distinct lateral line - is a robot fish created of Plexiglas and aluminum, about 80 centimeters long and 30 centimeters in diameter, filled towards the gills with an electric control system and a power supply. Amongst its striking external characteristics are six propeller gondolas that drive and position the robot, and a yellow hemispherical nose to which the receptors that guide the underwater vehicle are secured.
The TUM scientists deliberately chose an underwater vehicle to test their technology, as such vehicles confront a really specific set of issues not encountered by autonomous robots on land:
• Visibility under water is often limited to just several centimeters.
• The infrared detectors commonly used by land robots together with cameras to recognize their surroundings do not perform below water.
• Wireless transmission is restricted under drinking water due to poor propagation.
• Energy resources are limited towards the capacity of the batteries, so all systems should operate with extreme efficiency.
• Maximum reliability is also essential, because if something goes wrong, an underwater robot can quickly be lost for ever.
"An underwater robot is as much on its own being a automobile on Mars," says electrical engineer Stefan Sosnowski. He works in the Department of Robotics headed by Professor Sandra Hirche and is responsible for the design of the underwater craft. His colleague, biophysicist Dr. Jan-Moritz Franosch, aided by a group of students, has developed an artificial lateral line for that robot, enabling "Snookie" to detect obstacles and movements within the water a hand's breadth in front of its nose and on either side. This artificial organ measures changes in strain and flow close to the robot not with conventional dynamic indicators, which would be far as well large and imprecise, but with thermistors. When a alter in flow velocity occurs, this instantly causes a alter within the heat dispersed through a heated wire. This in turn can be measured electronically by the sensor elements with great speed, and in a minimum of space. At periods of the tenth of the second and using only a tiny amount of electrical energy, the sensors register strain fluctuations of less than 1 percent over an area of just a few square millimeters.
The two young scientists look on "Snookie" as a lot more than just an experiment. They expect autonomous underwater robots to discover a broad range of applications -- from investigating shipwrecks to carrying out deep-sea search tasks, for instance to locate the flight recorder right after air disasters. A lot more mundanely, they could also be used to inspect tanks and sewer pipes. Prof. van Hemmen also expects that robots with much more receptive lateral line techniques will have considerable potential uses on land, as it's of course equally possible to identify variations in pressure and flow in air, too as drinking water. Another external project is working on this subject. Man-made lateral lines might for instance offer a cheaper alternative towards the laser scanners currently utilized by robots to feel their way about their immediate surroundings - using the advantage that, unlike laser scanners, lateral lines won't be blinded by other robots. This would permit autonomous robots to be deployed in swarms, opening the way for completely new applications.
Biophysicist Prof. van Hemmen has a lot more on his mind than just autonomous underwater robots. His goal would be to develop and blend new forms of technological sensory perception, as he is confident that in this way machines can perceive their surroundings with a lot greater accuracy. "The key here is 'multimodal sensing,'" he explains. "Humans, as well, don't rely on a single sense. Our brains combine the input from a variety of senses to produce an overall image of our surroundings. It is not until one of our senses fails us that we value how important this combination is." Prof. van Hemmen graphically demonstrates this using the following instance: "It normally takes maybe ten seconds to strike a match. But if you put on thin gloves to take away the sense of touch, it becomes much harder. Often the task then takes a lot more than a minute."
Van Hemmen is also convinced that robotic intelligence benefits little from adding much more cameras to supply much more images. He feels that it is a lot more essential for robots to perceive various aspects of their environment having a variety of sensors. However, when it comes to combining these different perceptions, he has to delve deep into the secrets of brain investigation: How do animals sift via a mass of information to filter out what is really relevant? How do human beings manage this? The CoTeSys excellence cluster, he believes, provides a chance not just to answer these questions, but, through interdisciplinary cooperation among physiologists, information technologists and engineers, to transfer the new-found principles towards the world of technology: "To be alert means reducing information to its essentials. Robots must understand to complete this too, even when faced having a wide variety of sensor info."
In fact, CoTeSys specializes in just this kind of interdisciplinary cooperation. The research cluster brings together close to 100 scientists working in extensively differing areas at five universities and research institutes within the Munich area, within the interest of building much better cognitive capabilities for technical systems. The objective is to make robots more self-sufficient, able to analyze for themselves and flexibly respond to the situations where they discover themselves -- from recognizing their environment through to independently performing their allotted assignments. As part from the Excellence Initiative, the Federal and state governments have set aside a total of 28 million euros in financing for the joint project coordinated through the Technische Universität München (TUM).

 

Clever as a blind fish, the underwater robot "Snookie" can orient itself in murky waters with an artificial sensory organ inspired by the so-called lateral-line system, found in fish and some amphibians. The experimental vehicle was developed by researchers at the Technische Universitaet Muenchen within the framework of the CoTeSys (Cognition for Technical Techniques) excellence cluster. In the future, the researchers anticipate such capabilities to allow underwater robots to perform autonomously in operations ranging from deep sea exploration to inspection of sewer pipes.

Traditional robots are strong. Inhospitable environments, toxic and corrosive gases, low light levels, moisture, dirt and disease mean nothing to them -- unlike human beings, for whom such circumstances are generally unbearable. Nevertheless, these robots - the ones usually in use these days - can only do their job given that they're precisely programmed to take every action.

Autonomous robots, on the other hand, will within the foreseeable future be capable to react intelligently to their surroundings and carry out their tasks largely independently. Rather than being strictly programmed, they rely on their own sensory perceptions. This is after all the only way where they can recognize the situation they're in and still fulfill their tasks. Nevertheless, in tough environments their senses often fail them, laid low by fumes, dust, water, or high temperatures. Brand new senses are known as for -- perhaps even sensory organs of the type that human beings lack.

A new research task undertaken through the CoTeSys (Cognition for Technical Systems) excellence cluster in Munich aims to produce the technology to master such new senses. Biophysicist Prof. Leo van Hemmen of the Technische Universitaet Muenchen (TUM) has higher hopes that the animal kingdom will supply the means to allow robots to perceive their surroundings. Fish, scorpions, even frogs, for example, understand things that continue to be hidden to human organs. Not only are they able to detect minute pressure variations and vibrations and identify risks, they use these senses to form an exact image of their surroundings, enabling them at every moment to decide, for instance, how best to seize their prey or how to hide themselves behind a defensive barrier. Prof. van Hemmen and his colleagues are researching just how animals do this, studying the algorithms with which their brains record their environment and producing hardware and computer programs to permit robots to mimic them.

Fish and amphibians for instance have an organ, the lateral line, which is non-existent in land animals. With this sensory organ, which stretches along the both sides of the body, they are capable to experience minute variations in strain and current flow. As a result they're able, even in murky water, to form a really detailed picture of their immediate surroundings at a range of about the length of their body. They know exactly where obstacles lie, where dangers lurk, and exactly where their prey are to become discovered. Lateral lines are composed of hundreds or even thousands of good sensory hairs that are located in tiny ducts under the skin and that register even tiny changes in flow velocity. The African clawed frog Xenopus laevis for example distinguishes between edible and inedible insects on the basis of water-borne vibrations. In terms of accuracy, these sensors are equivalent with the human inner ear, where hundreds of thousands of fine sensory hairs enable us to differentiate between sounds -- from the sigh from the wind to a symphony.

However, the complex part is not the sensor itself, but how the signals it sends are processed to produce a complete picture of the surrounding region. Differences in pressure are a lot more hard to accurately pin down than waves of light. We human beings comprehend the issue when a sound gets our focus and our eyes instantly seek out the source of the sound to confirm the location. Scorpions, about the other hand, use small vibrations sent through the ground to discover their prey, even within the dark of night: These arachnids have sensory hairs on their eight legs, and their brains analyze the smallest distinctions in the timing of vibration waves within the sand to identify exactly where their prey is located. Similar algorithms could be used to examine the lateral line perceptions of fish.

A favorite instance studied by the researchers in Munich is the blind Mexican cave fish Astyanax. As a cave-dweller it has no need of sight in the darkness, and as the fish ages its eyes degenerate. Nevertheless, it has no difficulty in navigating its pitch-black habitat, reacting flexibly to changes and changing rapidly to new environments. The truth that robots can learn to do so too is demonstrated by "Snookie," an underwater robot built by an interdisciplinary team of scientists and technical professionals headed by Prof. van Hemmen.

"Snookie" - named after a species of perch with a distinct lateral line - is a robot fish created of Plexiglas and aluminum, about 80 centimeters long and 30 centimeters in diameter, filled towards the gills with an electric control system and a power supply. Amongst its striking external characteristics are six propeller gondolas that drive and position the robot, and a yellow hemispherical nose to which the receptors that guide the underwater vehicle are secured.

The TUM scientists deliberately chose an underwater vehicle to test their technology, as such vehicles confront a really specific set of issues not encountered by autonomous robots on land:

Visibility under water is often limited to just several centimeters.

The infrared detectors commonly used by land robots together with cameras to recognize their surroundings do not perform below water.

Wireless transmission is restricted under drinking water due to poor propagation.

Energy resources are limited towards the capacity of the batteries, so all systems should operate with extreme efficiency.

Maximum reliability is also essential, because if something goes wrong, an underwater robot can quickly be lost for ever.

"An underwater robot is as much on its own being a automobile on Mars," says electrical engineer Stefan Sosnowski. He works in the Department of Robotics headed by Professor Sandra Hirche and is responsible for the design of the underwater craft. His colleague, biophysicist Dr. Jan-Moritz Franosch, aided by a group of students, has developed an artificial lateral line for that robot, enabling "Snookie" to detect obstacles and movements within the water a hand's breadth in front of its nose and on either side. This artificial organ measures changes in strain and flow close to the robot not with conventional dynamic indicators, which would be far as well large and imprecise, but with thermistors. When a alter in flow velocity occurs, this instantly causes a alter within the heat dispersed through a heated wire. This in turn can be measured electronically by the sensor elements with great speed, and in a minimum of space. At periods of the tenth of the second and using only a tiny amount of electrical energy, the sensors register strain fluctuations of less than 1 percent over an area of just a few square millimeters.

The two young scientists look on "Snookie" as a lot more than just an experiment. They expect autonomous underwater robots to discover a broad range of applications -- from investigating shipwrecks to carrying out deep-sea search tasks, for instance to locate the flight recorder right after air disasters. A lot more mundanely, they could also be used to inspect tanks and sewer pipes. Prof. van Hemmen also expects that robots with much more receptive lateral line techniques will have considerable potential uses on land, as it's of course equally possible to identify variations in pressure and flow in air, too as drinking water. Another external project is working on this subject. Man-made lateral lines might for instance offer a cheaper alternative towards the laser scanners currently utilized by robots to feel their way about their immediate surroundings - using the advantage that, unlike laser scanners, lateral lines won't be blinded by other robots. This would permit autonomous robots to be deployed in swarms, opening the way for completely new applications.

Biophysicist Prof. van Hemmen has a lot more on his mind than just autonomous underwater robots. His goal would be to develop and blend new forms of technological sensory perception, as he is confident that in this way machines can perceive their surroundings with a lot greater accuracy. "The key here is 'multimodal sensing,'" he explains. "Humans, as well, don't rely on a single sense. Our brains combine the input from a variety of senses to produce an overall image of our surroundings. It is not until one of our senses fails us that we value how important this combination is." Prof. van Hemmen graphically demonstrates this using the following instance: "It normally takes maybe ten seconds to strike a match. But if you put on thin gloves to take away the sense of touch, it becomes much harder. Often the task then takes a lot more than a minute."

Van Hemmen is also convinced that robotic intelligence benefits little from adding much more cameras to supply much more images. He feels that it is a lot more essential for robots to perceive various aspects of their environment having a variety of sensors. However, when it comes to combining these different perceptions, he has to delve deep into the secrets of brain investigation: How do animals sift via a mass of information to filter out what is really relevant? How do human beings manage this? The CoTeSys excellence cluster, he believes, provides a chance not just to answer these questions, but, through interdisciplinary cooperation among physiologists, information technologists and engineers, to transfer the new-found principles towards the world of technology: "To be alert means reducing information to its essentials. Robots must understand to complete this too, even when faced having a wide variety of sensor info."

In fact, CoTeSys specializes in just this kind of interdisciplinary cooperation. The research cluster brings together close to 100 scientists working in extensively differing areas at five universities and research institutes within the Munich area, within the interest of building much better cognitive capabilities for technical systems. The objective is to make robots more self-sufficient, able to analyze for themselves and flexibly respond to the situations where they discover themselves -- from recognizing their environment through to independently performing their allotted assignments. As part from the Excellence Initiative, the Federal and state governments have set aside a total of 28 million euros in financing for the joint project coordinated through the Technische Universität München (TUM).

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