Last Sunday, the ETH Zurich main building came alive with mechanical whirring, humming and rattling. This time though it was not students but robots who took centre stage in the main hall, as they flew, rolled and hopped through the throngs of visitors, winning the hearts of the children in particular. The event took place as the second themed Sunday in the Treffpunkt Science City series. Researchers and students from the Autonomous Systems Lab and Robotic Systems Lab were on hand to present their current research projects and answer visitors’ questions about robots.
Human interaction with the robots
“Could you please make some space? Many thanks!” exclaimed service robot Obelix as it tried to manoeuver through the hordes of children to give the visitors a tour of the exhibition. Obelix navigates using publicly available maps and could one day be used as an urban delivery service.
Anymal, the four-legged walking robot, was another key attraction, although it is not yet ready to be used for its original purpose as a search and rescue robot. “The hardware is available. But we need to improve the algorithm so that Anymal can move comfortably across any terrain,” says Remo Diethelm, a software engineer at ETH Zurich.
One robot, Ibex, is already at work in the real world. In the hall, it looked rather like an oversized computer game with levers – but in reality, it is a remote-controlled, pilotless excavator.
Programming: it’s child’s play
In the demonstration “DanceBot und seine Freunde” (DanceBot and his friends), there was plenty to see and touch as well. “We want to make technical processes fun and interesting for children by introducing them to the topic in a playful way,” explains Stefan Bertschi, youth outreach coordinator at the Autonomous Systems Lab. Children thus got the chance to try out a number of exhibits, including the dancing robots, and see underwater robots up close.
Flying without human control
Large crowds of captivated spectators gathered on the stairs of the ETH main building’s south courtyard. The visitors’ rapt attention was focussed on flying robot Elster, which was showing off its skills in an air show. The robot is fitted with three cameras and a magnetic gripper. The cameras give it sight, allowing it to navigate through its surroundings and locate shiny objects, which it can then fly towards skilfully and pick up using its robotic arm, all without human control.
In real life, Elster is intended to be used in places where it would be too dangerous for humans to go. “Our aim is to program robots so that they can function autonomously outside the lab,” explains Rik Bähnemann from the ETH Zurich Autonomous Systems Lab. In future, these sorts of flying robots could be used to inspect factories or the inside of boilers.
A somewhat uneasy fascination
While the visitors were fascinated and excited by what they saw, there was nonetheless a certain feeling of unease regarding the growing role of robots in our everyday lives. For example, one couple was “concerned about the potential loss of control over programmed technology”. However, another visitor believed that “in the end, robots are only as good as we program them to be”.