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Caltech and Disney Engineers Collaborate on Robotics

New research agreement could yield robots better able to interact smoothly with humans

Published on Thursday, January 18, 2018 | 2:30 pm
A proposed design for a hopping robot inside a ball. Credit: Aaron Ames/Caltech

New research agreement could yield robots better able to interact smoothly with humans

Caltech and Disney Research have entered into a joint research agreement to pioneer robotic control systems and further explore artificial intelligence technologies.

The agreement creates a framework that will allow researchers and engineers at Caltech and Disney Research to easily collaborate on projects of mutual interest. The three-year agreement officially began in August 2017 with projects focused on developing robots with new autonomous movement capabilities and improving machine learning for robots on the move. The goal is to help smooth future human-machine interactions.

Caltech’s Pietro Perona will work with Disney roboticist Martin Buehler to create navigation and perception software that could allow robotic characters to safely move through dense crowds and interact with people. The goal is to design these robots to perceive and understand their surroundings, distinguishing objects from people. They should also be able to make assessments about the people they meet—determining whether someone is looking for directions, for example.

Perona, Allen E. Puckett Professor of Electrical Engineering in the Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS), is the cofounder of Visipedia, a Google-funded project that is using advances in machine learning and computer vision to help classify objects in photographs. Together with colleagues at Cornell University, his team has created a smartphone app that can distinguish among more than 550 bird species in North America.

Meanwhile, Caltech’s Aaron Ames, Bren Professor of Mechanical and Civil Engineering and Control and Dynamical Systems in EAS, will work with Disney Research’s Lanny Smoot to further explore robot autonomy and machine learning by creating objects that can self-navigate and perform stunts. For example, the engineers hope to create autonomous robotic balls that will have unique bouncing patterns and teach them how to interact with each other. Ames, who studies robotic walking, arrived at Caltech at the beginning of 2017.

Caltech and Disney Research have a fruitful history of collaboration. Yisong Yue, assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences, recently worked with engineers from Disney Research on the use of machine learning to analyze the behavior of soccer players and to measure audience engagement.







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