U of I Urbana-Champaign's Human Avatar accelerating the future of remote robotics

U of I Urbana-Champaign's Human Avatar accelerating the future of remote robotics

For more than three years, a team of graduate students led by Illinois CS professor Kris Hauser has progressed through the $10M ANA Avatar XPRIZE. Starting among nearly 80 teams from all around the world, the AVATRINA team worked to showcase their Tele-Robotic Intelligent Nursing Assistant (TRINA) as a platform for deploying human presence to a remote location.

Their groundbreaking work continues, as AVATRINA earned placement in the Avatar XPRIZE finals after competing alongside 36 other semifinalist teams.

TRINA is a robotic avatar that allows the operator to see, hear, navigate and interact with a remote environment. Its development showcases the team's dedicated effort in robotics and VR/AR research.

"We're in the Zoom era today, and telerobotics will be the telecommuting of tomorrow. It's thrilling to be involved in shaping the future of this technology, and the team is very excited for TRINA to compete at the finals," said Hauser.

Hauser's work on this project started before the XPRIZE began as NSF-supported research between collaborators at Illinois CS and Duke University in 2018. His team has grown to include an augmented reality gaming startup company called VRotors, which develops enterprise cloud platforms for robotics and immersive VR/AR technology.

The TRINA system is a mobile manipulator robot with two arms, grippers, and a moving base controlled by a remote operator using a commodity VR system. TRINA approximates human height and incorporates advanced control techniques so that it can gently shake a person's hand and collide with objects but is strong enough to lift 10 lbs. per hand.

The robot has audio and video connection to communicate with operators and observers on the robot's side. It also has a head with cameras, to track the operator's head movements, which lets the operator see what the robot sees. A tablet screen displays the operator's face.

Hauser hopes to incorporate more realistic haptic feedback to improve the operator's fine manipulation capabilities and incorporate larger batteries to let TRINA operate untethered. He also hopes to implement AI-driven operator assistance techniques to help the user avoid collisions, navigate long distances and grasp objects more easily than with direct control.

Neil Malhotra, founder of VRotors, emphasized the AVATRINA team's innovativeness.

"It's been a privilege to work with Dr. Hauser's UIUC student robotics team, which developed one of the world's most capable human avatar robots through thoughtful innovation and incredible dedication, leading to this exciting competition result," Malhotra said.

The Avatar XPRIZE is a four-year global competition focused on developing an avatar system that will deploy a human's senses, actions and presence to a remote location in real time, leading to a more connected world. In the future, avatars could help provide critical care and deploy immediate responses in emergencies or offer opportunities for exploration and new ways of collaboration, stretching the boundaries of what is possible and maximizing the impact of skill and knowledge sharing.

"The possibility of living in a world where individuals can provide aid during a crisis in a different country without ever leaving the comfort of their homes is closer than ever," said Anousheh Ansari, CEO of XPRIZE. "While it's been difficult this year to predict what the future will bring for the evolving health landscape, these avatar solutions will solve real-world problems and can bring people together in more ways than ever before. We're looking forward to supporting these incredible finalist teams competing in the ANA Avatar XPRIZE and their technology into the future."

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