This is the first story in the yearlong series "Eyes on Innovation," which explores UT's world-changing ideas, fascinating discoveries and new ways of doing things.
This summer, Dreamer, a robot with a bright, cartoon-like face received its first set of wheels and made its acting debut in a major Hollywood film.
Dreamer is the brainchild of Luis Sentis, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering who established the Human Centered Robotics Lab in 2010 at the Cockrell School of Engineering. Sentis and his colleagues and students develop "humanoid" robots to interact safely with humans, perform tasks with flexibility and precision and to go where it's too dangerous for humans to go. Indeed, robot safety among humans is a critical area now, as robots expand into industrial and field applications such as flexible manufacturing and search and rescue, according to robotics experts.
Dreamer's software and hardware have been in development for several years. The robot has wheels to give it mobility, hands with fingers for flexibility of motion, and human-like features, such as large, expressive eyes to communicate better with people.
Perhaps that's what attracted Hollywood director Michael Bay, who tapped the robot to appear in the fourth installation of the "Transformers" movie franchise. In the film, Dreamer may share as many as 30 seconds of screen time with actor Mark Wahlberg. The movie, shot in nearby Elgin, will be out next summer.
Off camera, Dreamer is a state-of-the-art example of a rough terrain humanoid robot, outfitted with brains (software), sensors, lasers and wheels that will one day allow it to traverse cities and outdoor environments with relative ease. If all goes as planned, robots such as Dreamer could help clean streets, extinguish dangerous chemical fires or deliver life-saving medical care.
Sentis' research group's latest study on Dreamer, which had its wheel base and upper body combined in the last few months, will be published in the Journal of Autonomous Robots this fall.
In addition to Dreamer, the lab has been part of a large team that is building a robot for NASA's DARPA Robotics Challenge a competition in which six teams design a high-functioning humanoid robot, dubbed Valkyrie. Last summer, Sentis and four of his researchers spent half a week every week at NASA designing and controlling the humanoid, which is made up of dexterous hands, flexible limbs, sensors, safety systems and cameras. The team's robot passed qualifications in June and is headed to the competition's first round in December.
One of the major challenges for Valkyrie and Dreamer is self-regulated mobility.
"You need to use your cameras (on board the robot), your sensors and lasers to perceive and respond to the environment," Sentis explains. "The goal is to go outdoors and adapt to the environment and task. Right now, robots can't go into a place where there are obstacles or debris. We are trying to solve this problem."
Sentis' solution is to develop whole-body robotic controls that provide safe human interaction.
"Professor Sentis is a leader in developing safe robot systems that can operate around humans," says Mike Stilman, an assistant professor in robotics and intelligent machines at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "His mobile robots can bump into walls, and even people, safely while still achieving their tasks. Furthermore, his approach to whole-body compliant control allows Dreamer to safely perform manipulation in close proximity with humans."
The team is testing Dreamer's ability to transition smoothly between flat and sloped flooring in different terrains and to avoid potential collisions with people and objects. Eventually, the researchers will program Dreamer to open doors and maneuver through tight spaces.
"Sentis is at the front lines of developing the theory and algorithms that will make safe motion a reality," Stilman adds.
One of Dreamer's biggest successes so far is its wheel-mounted base, which was designed by high school students and UT Austin undergraduates. Sentis could have purchased a base, but he believed it was an important hands-on learning project.
"The current base has much better mechanics and flexibility," Sentis said. "I could have purchased a base, but I wanted to educate as many people as possible."
A longer version of this story originally appeared on the Cockrell School of Engineering website.