Teaching robots to feel
Professor Danica Kragic, head of the Computer Vision and Active Perception Lab (CVAP), is a huge fan of robots. In her research she teaches the robots to see and grip things, as well as to interact with each other and the surroundings.
In the manufacturing industry robots have been around for a long time, and ABB as a manufacturer has put Sweden on the map.
“Now robotics is more and more becoming a part of our everyday lives and can be found in everything from self-driven mowers to navigation systems in our cars,” says Danica Kragic, Professor of Computer Science.
As Head of the Computer Vision and Active Perception Lab (CVAP), as well as the Director of the Centre for Autonomous Systems (CAS), she spends her days among robots and robot nerds.
Danica's research focuses in particular on the development of robots' ability to see and grasp things, but she also studies the human behavior. Because, if robots should go from being pre-programmed and remote controlled to being able to cook and interact with us humans, well then we need to teach them how.
However, mimicking the way people process information from sight, hearing and other senses, is not easy. But with sensors and computers that sense and process the contents of the digital images it is possible to get a long way.
“With the help of video sequences of human hand movements, we can calculate which fingers are important when interacting with various objects. For example, holding a pencil or a glass involves different fingers,” says Danica.
This can be useful in the development of prosthetic and robotic hands she explains, and shows a state-of-the-art prosthesis model – a hand with five fingers looking very much as a human hand but with very limited movement capabilities. It is made by one of the leading prosthetics companies, German Otto-Bock, who Danica collaborates with and where one of her six graduate students is working.
- For Otto-Bock it is interesting to know about the latest research when designing the next prosthesis model.
Danica´s work has been rewarded with several international prizes. In 2007 she received the IEEE Robotics and Automation Society Early Academic Career Award, which is presented to one researcher in the world once a year. In 2008 she was designated a Future Research Leader by SSF - the Foundation for Strategic Research, and 2011 she was selected as one of the first 22 members of Sweden's newly established Young Academy of Sweden.
The research project on robotic hands is called FLEXBOT, Flexible object manipulation based on statistical learning and topological representations.
”Scientifically, we push for new way of thinking in an area that has traditionally been born from mechanics an modelling of bodies but not seeking for optimal design. Technologically, we will provide methods plausible for evaluation of new designs of robotic and prosthetic hands.”
For this project Danica Kragic in spring 2011 was rewarded one of the finest grants a young researcher can get to build up their research group; the ERC Starting Grant of 13.5 million SEK over five years.
Around 40 people work at CVAP. The research is largely funded by the Foundation for Strategic Research and the Swedish Research Council. A relatively young group, both academically and in terms of age.
In her role as a leader and supervisor, Danica sees herself as a guide.
- Yes, I try to work on my students´ self-confidence and make sure that they always have the supervision they need. And they all need different types of tutoring. I think it is important for all successful leaders and supervisors to be able to be a different person. You have to listen and respect different ways of doing the work, and not try to force people to work according to the structure that I want.
During spring 2011 two of her graduate students worked at the U.S. company Willow Garage, which develops both hardware and software for robot applications. Swedish Tobii Technology, a world leader in eye tracking technology - is an example of companies that have hired a post-doc that graduated from her department.
- Close relationship between the academy and the industry is beneficial for both parties. My ambition is that many of our graduate students will chose to do their post doc in the industry when they are finished with their degrees.