I had the priceless opportunity to attend the IEEE sponsored International Conference on Robotics and Automation ICRA at Stockholm. I was one of the three member team “Autobots” that won the Humanitarion Robotics Challenge (HRATC).

Starting our journey to ICRA - Team Autobots -Me, Lentin Joseph, Chandykunju Alex
Starting our journey to ICRA - Team Autobots -Me, Lentin Joseph, Chandykunju Alex

The excitement was huge- it was my first conference, it was my first international trip, and moreover, the excitement of meeting eminent robotics researchers, attending their talks and seeing the cutting edge research happening worldwide.

The conference started on May 16th. Somehow, we missed our connection flight from Dubai to Stockhom and ended showing up late. I missed the very first talk I was looking forward to, ‘HUMANS 2.0’, by Dr. Hugh Herr. He is a badass guy who made himself a pair of prosthetic limbs after he lost his limbs in a climbing accident. Moreover, he now uses his limbs for his advantage to climb much higher. I was always looking forward to meet him.

On the first day, we didn’t enter any sessions since we were bit late. We completed the registration and grabbed ICRA T-Shirt, bag, a proceedings pendrive and a couple of booklets from the front desk. Straight from there, we went for a quick visit to the exhibition hall, to see all the cool robots being showcased.

Meeting Cool Robots

It was the first time in my life seeing such a large number of awesome robots together in a same room. It doesn’t happen often. we clicked a couple of pics.

At the entrance, there was Fetch Robotics, we posed for a photo with Fetch and Freight.

Lentin Joseph, Fetch, Me, Freight and Chandykunju Alex
Lentin Joseph, Fetch, Me, Freight and Chandykunju Alex

They gave us a toy model of their robots too. Turned out it is a USB drive loaded with the ROS packages to simulate their robots. Pretty cool.

Toy Freight, loaded with simulation models
Toy Freight, loaded with simulation models

There was lot more robots, which I have seen on internet. It was like heaven.

Baxter
Baxter
YuMi
YuMi
Kuka iiwa
Kuka iiwa
Kuka Youbot
Kuka Youbot
Kinova
Kinova
REEM from PAL Robotics
REEM from PAL Robotics

Challenges

ICRA had three challenges

  • Airbus Shopfloor Challenge
  • Humanitarian Robotics & Automation Technology Challenge
  • Formal Methods in robotics challenge

The Airbus challenge The airbus challenge stole the show and I think the other two challenges didnt get much attention. There were seven teams in the finals. It was intersting to see the real robots working on how to solve the challenge. The Airbus challenge room was always crowded with spectators.

The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge
The Airbus Shopfloor Challenge

There was Team Vayu, a group of young and smart students from India. Coincidentally they were also staying at the same hostel we were in.

Team Vayu, our neighbours
Team Vayu, our neighbours

The challenge we had to participate was Humanitarian Robotics and Automation Technology Challenge (HRATC) But we didn’t had much to do there. The challenge being held remotely at University of Coimbra,in Portugal and the video was streamed to the ICRA location. The robot is fully autonomous and the code was already uploaded. So we had noting else to do except watching patiently the slowly moving robot on the screen.

The Humanitarian Robotics and Automation Technology Challenge
The Humanitarian Robotics and Automation Technology Challenge

The challenge was scheduled for two consecutive days. There was issues with gps localization on first day since the atmosphere was cloudy at the challenge location. On top of that, somehow our robot got stubborn and didnt move around much. Thus we scored the minimum on the first day. Back in our hostel, we identified some critical bugs which caused low performance and fixed it. The next day, our robot performed fairly well. But given the worst performance on the first day, we didnt had much hope. So our hopes of winning a price at ICRA began to fade. Anyway, I was happy that I could attend such a prestigious challenge. I saw a dream on that night. It was the ICRA award ceremony. I could see the slip in the hand of the announcing lady. Indeed, it had the name “ Team Autobots” on one of the slip. The next morning was lethargic. After the seemingly bad performance at the challenge we lost our spirits. My team mates just hoped atleast to get a third place. While walking lazily to the ICRA venue, I jokingly said that if we are going to get any prize, it won’t be third and it will be first, referencing my dream. The award ceremony started and we all gathered in the auditorium.

ICRA Awards Ceremony
ICRA Awards Ceremony

Actually we all were feeling little bored and sleepy. Prof. Rah Madhavan, who is the ICRA challenge chair appeared on the stage to announce the challenge winners. We were excited, partly to know who the winners are and partly to know whether we will get any prize. The prize was announced, and it was definitely us..

The jaw dropping moment
The jaw dropping moment

Hurrayy..!!.. We couldn’t believe our eyes or ears. We sprang up from our seats, and was on the stage in seconds. We received the certificate from the IEEE RAS President Prof. Satoshi Tadokoro

The proud moment
The proud moment
The proud moment
The proud moment
The Certificate
The Certificate
The HRATC participants with organizers
The HRATC participants with organizers

We became instantly famous after winning the challenge. Prior to that, we we roaming around, trying to meet new people. But now many people are coming to meet us. It was indeed a very nice feeling.

Meeting the Heros

ICRA also gave me a chance to meet many pioneers in various fields of robotics. The ones whom I have only read about or been following in social-medias. First come Prof. Ousaama Khaatib.

I first came to know about him during the second year of my undergraduate studies. It was in 2009. I have no formal training in Robotics and was making use of the internet. I stumbled upon MIT Open CourseWare on robotics, lectured by him. I learned the basics of manipulators, Jacobians etc from his lectures. It was long before the recent wave if MOOCs. Recently I was also reading the Springer Handbook of Robotics, of which he is a chief editor. Meeting him at icra was dramatic. I was wandering near the entrance when I spotted him. He was standing along discussing sometimes with a dozen dignitaries, all in coats and suits. He didn’t had an ID card on his neck, why should he. I waited at some distance, checking occasionally whether he is free. I waited for approx 10-15 minutes and maybe he too must have noticed that. The next moment was jaw dropping for me, he turned walking towards me and greeting me a “Hi”. I couldn’t believe my eyes and I stumbled for words. I introduced myself and my company. He was excited and happy to hear that his MIT OCW lectures helped me a lot, and wished me good luck. Finally, I had a selfie with him.

Me with Prof. Oussama Khathib
Me with Prof. Oussama Khathib

The next person I met was Prof. Wolfram Burgard. I came to know about him during my final year of college, when I was trying to implement autonomous navigation using SLAM on my hobby robot project chippu. He has pioneered the state estimation of mobile robots and has made significant contributions to Simultaneous Localization and Mapping(SLAM), which powers almost all autonomous and self driving robots and cars. He is also one of the inventors of Monte Carlo Localization.

with Prof. Wolfram Burgard
with Prof. Wolfram Burgard

He was very friendly and was eager to know about our company. We were friends on Facebook and after clicking a selfie, he told me to tag him when I upload it to Facebook.

We also met Prof Vijay Kumar, the famed drone scientist from UPenn. Although he was busy with so many meetings, he gave us a couple of minutes. Later, after the HRATC results were announced, he himself came to us for congratulating us. It was unbelievable.

Team Autobots with Prof. Vijay Kumar
Team Autobots with Prof. Vijay Kumar

We also met Prof Peter Corke from QUT. He is known for his research in computer vision.

Team Autobots computer vision guru Prof. Peter Corke
Team Autobots computer vision guru Prof. Peter Corke

Meeting Prof. Amir Shapiro, whom we have been following on Facebook for a couple of years was a joy.

Team Autobots with Prof. Amir Shapiro
Team Autobots with Prof. Amir Shapiro

We also met Prof. Dinesh Manocha from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is well known for his researchon robotics and computer graphics. The popular Flexible Clooision Library (FCL) was born in his lab. He was excited to see there are startups doing quality work in Robotics from India. He made us aware of the immense opportunity of industrial robots in China. Coincidentally, the next day news was out that Kuka is being acquired by a Chinese firm. Seems that due to the interesting conversation with him, I forgot to click a photo with him.

I also had the oppertunity to talk with Prof. Claudio Semini about the hybrid hydraulic actuators used in the HyQ Robot.

The famous Prof. Magnus Egerdestdt from GeorgiaTech, whose online course (MOOC) on Mobile Robots has helped us a lot.

Team Autobots with Prof. Magnus Egerdestdt
Team Autobots with Prof. Magnus Egerdestdt

We also met Mr. Amit Kumar Pandey who is the Chief Scientific Officer at Aldebaran/Softbank Robotics.

Team Autobots with Mr. Amit Kumar Pandey
Team Autobots with Mr. Amit Kumar Pandey

It was Melonee Wise that we met first at the conference. She was very friendly, we talked for a while and we took a selfie. We were surprised to hear that she has already heard about us.

Team Autobots with Melonee Wise
Team Autobots with Melonee Wise

Raj Madhavan was our challen ge organizer. He is also a professor at Univerity of Maryland. He is much known for his humanitarian robotics works,

Team Autobots with Prof. Raj Madhavan
Team Autobots with Prof. Raj Madhavan

We also met Prof. Giorgio Metta, who is known for his resaech with the i-cub robot.

Team Autobots with Prof. Giorgio Metta
Team Autobots with Prof. Giorgio Metta

Mr. Francesco Ferro, the CEO of PAL robotics was very friendly and spend pretty good time together.

Team Autobots with Francesco Ferro
Team Autobots with Francesco Ferro

These were the people whom I knew only through the internet. They are my heros in robotics and a source of inspiration. Meeting them in real, talking with them and clicking selfies with them was really an out of the world experience that I will cherish for ever.

Paper presentations, Interactive sessions and making new friends

It was my first time seeing paper presentation sessions. There was three auditoriums where sessions were held in parallel. It was quite difficult to choose which session to attend, since many of them were interesting to me and to make things worse, they were scheduled in parallel. I enjoyed almost all the sessions I attended. It was exciting to see the cutting edge research results. Moreover the basic concepts behind most of the research was simple and understandable to me. Even though I couldn’t make much sense of many highly mathematical and purely theoretical papers, the other papers presented could be grasped easily. Previously my thought was that the research papers/presentations were only understood by someone with a masters or P.hD, due to the complex and advanced topics they handle. I believe keeping myself updated by not missing any IEEE spectrum video Fridays, reading voraciously every IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine for the last 5 years helped me a lot in understanding the m. The sessions gave me a realisation that many of the things that I did as hobby projects could be the basis for writing awesome research papers. It built in me a confidence that, I too can write and publish a research paper.

The interactive sessions after the paper presentations were much useful than the presentations as such as such. I could meet the authors and ask them more about their paper. Notable among them were meeting Will Bosworth, from MIT Biomimetics lab.

Will Bosworth explaining his research
Will Bosworth explaining his research

He explained me the actuators used in cheetah and junior cheetah. I always had a craving to make my own mini cheetah and meeting him was nice.

I also met Gavin Kennelly from UPenn, presenting his work on the direct drive jumping robot Minitaur. He explained me why and how he choose direct drive actuators for his robot. I was not much aware of the research happening around direct drive legged robots even though I was interested in direct drive robot manipulators. My belief was research on direct drive robots happened in 1980s by Asada et al, and it was an abandoned technology.Meeting Gavin Kenneally from UPenn rekindled my interest in direct drive robot actuators. He presesnted his work on Minitaur, the jumping robot.

I also met Zachary Batts from Disney Research. He was very friendly and presented a direct driven jumping robot using off the shelf components. We discussed a lot on the linear drive mechanisms.

Chad Kessens from US Army Research Labs presented a novel grasping system using self-sealing suction for quadcopters.

Chad Kessens wiith his suction gripper for aerial robots.
Chad Kessens wiith his suction gripper for aerial robots.

Prof Marko Popovic, from WPI, explained us his research on hybrid linear actuators

Prof Marko Popovic explaining his research.
Prof Marko Popovic explaining his research.

I also met Leif Jentoft and Nadia Cheng from Right hand robotics. I had a super long conversation with Leif. We shared our thoughts and experiences on doing a startup, funding scenarios etc . He told how he commercialized his research. He always had his gripper handy with him and a backpack filled with batteries for the gripper.

In short, attending ICRA was an unforgettable experience. It rekindled my passion for robotics. It inspired me to do more awesome and useful stuff and contribute to the science of robotics. After ICRA I started working on my first research project and paper. I will do my best and hopefully will attend the coming ICRA and IROS also

And the ICRA dinners was a nice experience. Yummy food and awesome people.

ICRA Dinner.
ICRA Dinner.