Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Mixing Biology And Electronics To Create Robotic Vision


Robots are a long way from being as sophisticated as the movies would have you believe.

Sure they can crush humans at chess. But they can’t beat us at soccer < half the time they can’t even recognize the soccer ball < or defeat us in single combat and walk away from the encounter. "We don’t have robots that can physically compete with humans in any way," says Charles Higgins, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at the University of Arizona.

However, Higgins is working to change that. He hopes to make robots more physical by giving them sight and an ability to react to what they see. "Right now, robots in general are just pitiful in terms of visual interaction," Higgins said. True, a few of today’s robots can see in some sense, but they aren’t mobile. These vision systems are connected to large computers, which precludes their use in small, mobile robots.

Outside of these few vision-only systems, today’s robots see very little. "Wouldn’t it be nice to have a robot that could actually see you and interact with you visually?" Higgins asks. "You could wave at it or smile at it. You could make a face gesture. It would be wonderful to interact with robots in the same way that we interact with humans."

If Higgins has his way, at least some of the first steps toward that goal will be achieved in the next ten to 20 years through neuromorphic engineering, a discipline that combines biology and electronics. Higgins and his students are developing an airborne visual navigation system by creating electronic clones of insect vision processing systems in analog integrated circuits. The circuits create insect-like self-motion estimation, obstacle avoidance, target tracking and other visual behaviors on two model blimps.

Higgins is well qualified to combine the radically different disciplines of biology and electronics. In addition to his faculty position in ECE, he’s also on the faculty in UA’s neuroscience program, which is recognized as one of the world’s leaders in studying insect vision. He conducts research in the neuroscience labs to find out how insect vision works and then transfers those results to the ECE lab, where he creates electronic vision circuits based on the insect model.

These circuits don’t use standard microprocessors. Instead, they’re based on what’s called "parallel processing" < a bunch of slower, simpler analog processors working simultaneously on a problem. In traditional digital computers, problems are solved in serial fashion, where a single fast digital processor flashes through a series of steps to solve the problem sequentially.

In fact, today’s digital computers < as good as they are at playing chess, working spreadsheets and solving math problems < can’t tackle the much more complex activities that we, as humans, take almost for granted.

The human eye, for instance, processes information at the equivalent of about 100 frames per second (fps) < much faster than a movie camera, which trundles along at 24 fps or a video camera that runs at 30 fps.

Each frame is processed for luminance, color, and motion, and the resulting images aren’t blurred or smeared. Doing that with a conventional computer is extremely complicated, requiring expensive processors and huge gulps of power, Higgins says. "It requires a lot of data moving at a very high rate of speed and in a very small instant of time."

It’s a little like sending a digital computer out to play baseball. It has to continually rush between all nine positions on the field sequentially, catching the ball at shortstop, for instance, and then rushing to first to catch the throw it made from the shortstop position. Parallel processing < which mimics the way biological systems solve problems < would play baseball by stationing a slower processor at every position. Higgins hopes to see robotic vision develop in the same way that robotic speech processing has during the past 30 years. "Think of all the toys today that have some sort of speech interaction," he said. "In the ’70s and ’80s that would have required a bunch of expensive hardware. But in the ’90s toy manufacturers started using a microchip set that allowed them to do that very cheaply. Now some toy sets have excellent, very clear voices. I’m hoping to do the same thing with vision."

Higgins wants to develop a microchip-based vision system that could follow a moving object like a soccer ball without getting confused by similarly shaped or colored objects, or a chip that would recognize different objects < a sidewalk crack it could roll over, for instance, from a ditch that it couldn’t. "I’m not talking about a vision system that will do everything our vision system will do, or even everything an insect’s visual system will do," he said. "I’m looking at a lot less < a very specific vision subsystem that accomplishes a specific task."

Building vision systems for toys might sound a bit frivolous, particularly coming from high-powered university laboratories, but toys account for a huge amount of money in the U.S. economy. And toys have much in common with satellites, missiles, automotive systems and home electronics. "Toys are big enough that if you make a popular vision processor and you’re able to sell it to Hasbro to put on their toys and it’s a successful product, you could be a millionaire quite easily," Higgins said. "In fact, a millionaire wouldn’t even cover it."

The key to all this is packing a huge amount of highly efficient processing in a small space, which is the goal of Higgins’ research. Once that’s done, the possibilities are nearly endless. "I’d like to give engineers a vision chip set like this and see what they would do with it," Higgins said. "My bet is that they would use it for things we could never imagine now. And I know it would be a really big thing."

The first chip set might cost $30,000 to produce. Then the price might drop quickly to $200 a set and then down to $20 a set, Higgins said. "When you get that vision chip down to $20, people will be buying millions of them for their products," he said. "I’d like to see that."

Ed Stiles | University of Arizona
Further information:

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht 'Super yeast' has the power to improve economics of biofuels
18.10.2016 | University of Wisconsin-Madison

nachricht Engineers reveal fabrication process for revolutionary transparent sensors
14.10.2016 | University of Wisconsin-Madison

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

Im Focus: Diamonds aren't forever: Sandia, Harvard team create first quantum computer bridge

By forcefully embedding two silicon atoms in a diamond matrix, Sandia researchers have demonstrated for the first time on a single chip all the components needed to create a quantum bridge to link quantum computers together.

"People have already built small quantum computers," says Sandia researcher Ryan Camacho. "Maybe the first useful one won't be a single giant quantum computer...

Im Focus: New Products - Highlights of COMPAMED 2016

COMPAMED has become the leading international marketplace for suppliers of medical manufacturing. The trade fair, which takes place every November and is co-located to MEDICA in Dusseldorf, has been steadily growing over the past years and shows that medical technology remains a rapidly growing market.

In 2016, the joint pavilion by the IVAM Microtechnology Network, the Product Market “High-tech for Medical Devices”, will be located in Hall 8a again and will...

Im Focus: Ultra-thin ferroelectric material for next-generation electronics

'Ferroelectric' materials can switch between different states of electrical polarization in response to an external electric field. This flexibility means they show promise for many applications, for example in electronic devices and computer memory. Current ferroelectric materials are highly valued for their thermal and chemical stability and rapid electro-mechanical responses, but creating a material that is scalable down to the tiny sizes needed for technologies like silicon-based semiconductors (Si-based CMOS) has proven challenging.

Now, Hiroshi Funakubo and co-workers at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, in collaboration with researchers across Japan, have conducted experiments to...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Resolving the mystery of preeclampsia

21.10.2016 | Health and Medicine

Stanford researchers create new special-purpose computer that may someday save us billions

21.10.2016 | Information Technology

From ancient fossils to future cars

21.10.2016 | Materials Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>