Simple Robots Perform Complex Tasks With Environmental Modifications | AI
There’s an expectation in robotics that in order to be useful, robots have to be able to adapt to unstructured environments. Unstructured environments generally refer to places outside of a robotics lab or other controlled or semi-controlled situation, and could include anything from your living room to a tropical rainforest. An enormous amount of effort and creativity goes into designing robots that can reliably operate in places like these, with a focus on developing methods of sensing, locomotion, and manipulation that handle all kinds of different situations. It’s a very hard problem; even for humans, it’s hard, so we do a very human thing. We cheat.
Cheating, in this context, means instead of adapting to an environment, you instead adapt the environment itself, modifying it so you can complete different tasks. Humans do this all the time, by using stepping stools to reach high places, adding stairs and ramps to overcome obstacles, attaching handles to objects to make manipulation easier, and so on. A robot that could do similar sorts of things has the potential to be far more capable than a robot that is simply passively adaptable, and at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation last week, we saw some new research that’s making it happen.