DOTS competition simulations, real robots and bloopers: powering emergency food distribution with swarms

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DOTS competition simulations, real robots and bloopers: powering emergency food distribution with swarms

The results of the DOTS competition were released yesterday, after an intense month with teams around the world designing new algorithms for swarms of robots tasked with delivering emergency food packages.

The scenario
The increase in the number of emergency food packages distributed by food banks has accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic, especially those intended for children. Robot swarms could help streamline the distribution of these emergency food packages, while freeing up time for volunteers and workers to interact with users and provide human contact.

What if you could unbox a swarm of robots and immediately use them to power your organization and transportation needs? You can use them to organize a small retail store’s stock or pick up boxes from a pop-up distribution center for school meals.

In the DOTS competition organized jointly by the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, the Toshiba Bristol Research and Innovation Laboratory and the UMBRELLA project of the South Gloucestershire Council, the robots used are called DOTS (Distributed Organization and Transport Systems) and respond to the problem posed: they do not t rely on cards or any complex infrastructure, making them both versatile and adaptable.

After years of research on algorithms and swarm material, we are now at a stage where we can think of real world applications. Robot swarms make so much sense as out-of-the-box solutions that can scale and adapt to a variety of messy real-world environments.

Sabine Hauert, Associate Professor of Swarm Engineering and responsible for the DOTS competition.

The robots
DOTS are custom-built 25cm robots that move fast, have long battery life (8 hours), can communicate via 5G, WiFI and Bluetooth, host a GPU and can sense the environment locally, as well as lift and transport payloads (2kg per robot). They are housed in the new Industrial Swarm Arena at Bristol Robotics Laboratory, accessible remotely and compatible with 5G.

“It took three years to design and build the robots and the DOTS simulator. I wanted the DOTS to be individually quite capable, with the latest sensing and computing capabilities so that they could make sense of the world around them using distributed situational awareness. It has been really rewarding to see them in action and to see that others can use them as well. Many of these robots were built in my home during containment where I have a dedicated workshop. Said Simon Jones, DOTS researcher and designer at the University of Bristol.

The challenge
Over the past few weeks, contest participants have been brainstorming and developing solutions to meet the challenge. The Warehouse is a simulated 4m x 4m x 4m room in Gazebo with a 0.5m wide strip along the right wall, serving as a drop-off area. The 10 “carriers” that the robots must recover are scattered at random. Following the paradigm of swarm robotics, each robot executes the same code base, so the challenge is to design a solution where the emerging behavior of the collective swarm results in rapid recovery.

One of the simplest solutions is for a robot to perform a random walk. As soon as a sensor detects a wearer, it can move towards the wearer and pick it up. With enough time, the robots will collectively collect all the carriers. From this basic implementation, more complex behaviors can be layered, such as adding a bias for movement in a particular direction or the interaction of robots to repel or attract.

Of course, in the real world, robots would face obstacles as well as faults in their hardware and software. The solutions submitted are also tested for their robustness and their ability to overcome these obstacles. An additional level of complexity is added with the task of picking up carriers in a given order.

“It was a great learning experience to see the whole pipeline, from code and simulation to execution with the real robots in the arena – it feels like this is where progress is made. are being made towards this vision of robots integrated into our daily lives, ”said Suet Lee, a PhD student at the University of Bristol who helped support the teams.

The results

With 7 submissions from teams around the world, it was exciting to see what solutions would emerge. In the end, the scores were pretty tight. For those teams that needed more time, we’ll be running a demo later this summer.

The winners were Swarmanauts. The team included David Garzon Ramos, Jonas Kuckling and Miquel Kegeleirs, doctoral students at IRIDIA, the artificial intelligence laboratory of the Free University of Brussels, Brussels, Belgium. They are all part of the ERC DEMIURGE project-team (PI Mauro Birattari) where they study the automatic design of collective behaviors for swarms of robots.

You can see their controller in action on the 6 scenarios tested here (unordered recovery, unordered recovery with lost robots, unordered with obstacles, ordered recovery, ordered with lost robots, ordered with obstacles)

“It was exciting to participate in the DOTS competition. We enjoyed the challenge of designing and testing coordination strategies for an industry-oriented robot swarm. Next time, we would also like to try automatic methods to design the collective behavior of robots, ”said David.

In second place, BusyB with team members Simon Obute and Rey Lei.

And finally, in third, we had Simple Solution by Hany Hamed and their fiery controller.

The winners will receive this fancy prize at soom house.

There has been a lot of nonsense along the way with all of the teams, here is an example of how things can go wrong in slow motion:

Finally, well done to all the other teams, UGA Hero Lab, Missing in Action, Str. Robot and C5PO for their excellent submissions.

Translation to reality

Ultimately, a simulation is no substitute for a real environment, no matter how useful for testing. What happens is the real-gap, the error that results from the difference between the noisy real world environment and the simplified simulation environment. Simon was able to demonstrate a basic controller in reality in the video below. To facilitate the transfer, the same code designed in ROS2, is designed to work both in simulation and in reality. Some changes were needed, such as slowing down robots to avoid motion blur on cameras, but many behaviors translated well, such as obstacle avoidance and overall swarm strategy.

It was an amazing experience working with our cool lab-built robots! I enjoyed designing hardware kits and it was gratifying to see it all work in real life.

Aswath G Indra, Masters student in Robotics at the University of Bristol.

Next steps
For a first DOTS competition it was a lot of fun and we are really happy with what was achieved by all the participants. We’ve got plenty of ideas for next year, like speeding up calculations, adding new tasks (like organizing the warehouse), and looking to give teams more time to use real hardware remotely.

Mahesh Sooriyabandara, Managing Director of Toshiba Bristol’s Research and Innovation Lab, said: “This is an important first step towards creating an Internet of robots and swarms of robots that can be used immediately. We have been working with the Bristol Robotics Laboratory for 3 years to build the robots first, then the new Industrial Swarm Arena. We hope that many will be able to use this infrastructure in the future, by running their code in a digital twin before moving on to the new swarm test bed ”.

The DOTS competition was supported by Simon Jones, Emma Milner, Suet Lee, James Wilson, Aswath Ganesan Indra, Sabine Hauert and the Toshiba BRIL team.

Suet lee

PhD student

Suet Lee is a doctoral student in Swarm Security at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory.

Sabine Hauert

President & Co-founder

Sabine Hauert is President of Robohub and Associate Professor at Bristol Robotics Laboratory


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