Cloud-computing platform paves the way for an internet of robots

Cloud computing
...robots will have access to a lot more data. As soon as you begin to share data across multiple sources, the functionality of the systems using the cloud is improved; they are able to learn from their counterparts. The robots can use data obtained by other systems to become better at what they’re doing.
Dr Heico Sandee
Researchers from five European universities have developed a cloud-computing platform specifically for robots. ‘Rapyuta: The RoboEarth Cloud Engine’ will provide robots with direct access to the computational, storage and communicative power offered by giant server farms such as those used by Google, Facebook and Amazon. The computer scientists contend that the ability to connect to these server farms, or data centres, via their Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) framework will allow WiFi-enabled robots to learn and adapt to complex tasks at a much faster rate than they can at present.

Current-generation mobile robots host onboard computers that enable them to carry out specific tasks. In addition to increasing cost and reducing mobility, however, the types of computation that such computers can perform are extremely limited in comparison with those made possible by data centres. The researchers contend that the ability to perform complex functions more quickly could prove especially useful for drones, autonomous cars and robot co-workers.

The RoboEarth project, which receives funding as part of the Cognitive Systems and Robotics Initiative from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), comprises technologists from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e), the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), the University of Stuttgart, the University of Zaragoza, the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Philips Innovation Services. The project aims to create ‘a giant network and database repository where robots can share information and learn from each other about their behaviour and their environment’. Essentially, the team hopes to create an ‘internet of robots’.

To find out more about the potential benefits offered by Rapyuta, I spoke to participating scientist Dr Heico Sandee, RoboEarth’s Programme Manager at TU/e. I began by asking Dr Sandee to explain more about the advantages that the new cloud-computing platform has over traditional onboard computers.

"The most significant advantages are those that are applicable to cloud computing generally," he began. "However, these benefits are particularly pronounced when it comes to mobile robots. It is very difficult for a robot with an onboard computer to perform computational-intensive calculations. However, if a robot has the necessary communicative functionality, these kinds of computational-intensive algorithm can be offloaded to the cloud. Essentially, cloud access means that you don’t need to have high-level platforms onboard your computer.

"Of course, a related advantage is that robots will have access to a lot more data," Dr Sandee continued. "As soon as you begin to share data across multiple sources, the functionality of the systems using the cloud is improved; they are able to learn from their counterparts. The robots can use data obtained by other systems to become better at what they’re doing."

The meteoric rise of the smartphone has precipitated widespread demand for increased wireless data rates. It is this increased wireless capacity that has made Rapyuta possible. In light of this, I asked to what extent the capabilities of this cloud-computing platform are dependent upon improvements in wireless data rates. Do we currently have the capacity, for instance, to make Rapyuta viable?

"That is a good question," replied Dr Sandee. "At present, we are choosing our applications based on the limitations of the wireless capacity that’s available. Indeed, some applications are difficult to realise. For example, it is hard to stream camera images in this way because of all of the other communications being facilitated by the cloud. It is feasible, but it takes a lot of time. Basically, this question rests upon the types of application that you want to use. Current wireless capacity is limiting in certain respects, but the cloud platform is still an extremely useful tool."

Of course, one would hope that wireless data rates would continue to improve across the coming decades, and any increases will serve to enhance the functionality offered by Rapyuta. But what happens if something goes wrong? If an error occurs within the onboard computer of an individual machine, that robot might become dysfunctional. However, could a problem in the cloud-computing platform put swathes of WiFi-enabled robots out of action simultaneously?

"That really depends on how you implement the system," Dr Sandee explained. "One of the basic advantages associated with the cloud is the fact that you don’t need to rely on one specific computer or programme. The cloud runs across multiple machines so that if one computer breaks down, the overarching system can continue to function. The same goes for the internet, and this principle should hold true for the RoboEarth Cloud Engine."

Finally, I asked Dr Sandee about the next steps for the RoboEarth team. What more needs to be done in order to create an internet of robots?

"For the past three years, we have been working on the basic RoboEarth system," he concluded. "Our first priority was to ensure that the system could be used. We are now in a position to begin using the platform, but in a very premature manner. This really is the first implementation. The next step, of course, will be to improve what we have; to extend the functionality and to build a user group to test and improve the system. As more and more people start to use RoboEarth, advances in its functionality will be accelerated."

Check out the RoboEarth website to learn more about this ambitious project.



This is one reason why responsible caregivers need to be allowed to have these creatures - to stop them from becoming extinct; albeit in captivity only.

Commented Cheryl on
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