ICRA 2024: Groundbreaking return to Yokohama

 

As we prepare to attend and exhibit at ICRA 2024 in Yokohama, we caught up with Matthew Godden, Senior Robotics Design Engineer. He has been at Shadow for just over 25 years, initially as his year out in industry and then after he graduated in 2000 with a degree in robotics and electronic engineering. He has designed all manner of robot body parts – in his words “anything that moves!”  –  and is also involved in developing the company’s product strategy.

The very first time Shadow Robot exhibited in Japan was at Robodex 2002 in Yokohama. Can you share the background of how that came about and your experience as the only foreign exhibitor?

 

“A small group of us attended including our Founder, Richard Greenhill. We were invited to bring our Biped which was one of our first robots, carved from wood and powered by pneumatic muscles. Incidentally it was also displayed at the Science Museum!

The Biped was of particular interest because it was a piece of robotics history. It was one of the first robots outside of Japan to wobble forwards on two legs. At the show Honda had ASIMO, only two years old at the time, and Sony were showing SDR (Sony Dream Robot), so the Biped was keeping some good company!

We also took our hand – an air muscle powered full arm and shoulder, with a forearm bristling with pneumatic muscles. It was our second prototype (the first was carved from wood, like the Biped) – and the predecessor to the Shadow hand we know today. 

The reception was great; we had crowds of the Japanese public on our stand asking questions (via the interpreter) and interacting with our robots. There was a lot of curiosity and interest around what was being developed outside of Japan. At one point, we ran a handshake demo, but the former throng of people turned into a long, polite queue walking up to the robot to shake its hand, and then walking away. So, we switched back to the excitement of swinging the hand through the crowd, occasionally bumping into someone and gently bouncing off them thanks to the air muscles.”

 

 

How has robotics in Japan influenced Shadow?

 

“As far back as 1996 (a little while before I joined Shadow) Honda released P2, the second in its prototype Humanoid series the predecessor to ASIMO. It was then that Shadow realised it was hard for us to compete with developments funded by the huge marketing budgets of such a global company. But we realised that when you have legs to go places, you’ll want to do something when you get there. That’s when we started working on hands for robots. 

Now there are quite a few groups working on humanoid robots, and we’re still working on the hands. Dexterous manipulation is an exciting challenge!”

 

What inspired the decision to return to Yokohama for ICRA 2024?

 

“We have a stand at IROS and/or ICRA most years. But this time it feels similar to that first trip as we are finally able to talk about this fantastic collaboration with Google DeepMind. After working together for several years, we’ll be unveiling our new robust hand.

The new Shadow Hand is the result of a complete back-to-basics brief, focussing on having access to all layers of control for their machine learning agents to be able to interact with the technology and learn manipulation skills from the ground up, while being robust enough to survive the early phases of reinforcement learning. 

There wasn’t a requirement for this hand to be anthropomorphic as AI doesn’t have the preconception of human hands like we do. To achieve the robustness and ease of repair Google DeepMind required we went for a modular approach instead. It is often said that what makes human hands good at manipulation is having opposable thumbs. I like to think of this new hand as having three of them!”

We believe the new hand represents a transformative step for machine learning robots. ICRA 2024 is an excellent opportunity to show off this new dexterous hand, to see how people interact with it and hear what they think.”

 

We’re all looking forward to seeing how ICRA attendees react to DEX-EE. Is there anything you are looking forward to seeing or doing at ICRA this year?

 

“It is always good to attend the exhibition and conference to see what the robotics community is developing. Also riding on the Shinkansen (bullet train) and trying jiggly cheesecake.”

 

Join us at booth IC032!

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