Obstacle Avoidance and Navigation in the Real World by a Seeing Robot Rover, Hans Moravec, 1980
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Chapter 2: History

This work was shaped to a great extent by its physical circumstances; the nature and limitations of the cart vehicle itself, and the resources that could be brought to bear on it. The cart has always been the poor relation of the Stanford Hand-Eye project, and has suffered from lack of many things, not the least of which was sufficient commitment and respect by any principal investigator.

The cart was built in the early 1960's by a group in the Stanford Mechanical Engineering Department under a NASA contract, to investigate potential solutions for the problems of remote controlling a lunar rover from Earth. The image from an onboard TV camera was broadcast to a human operator who manipulated a steering control. The control signals were delayed for two and a half seconds by a tape loop, then broadcast to the cart, simulating the Earth/Moon round trip delay.

The AI lab, then in its enthusiastic spit and baling wire infancy, acquired the cart gratis from ME after they were done, minus its video and remote control electronics. Rod Schmidt, an EE graduate student and radio amateur was induced to work on restoring the vehicle, and driving it under computer control. He spent over two years, but little money, single-handedly building a radio control link based on a model airplane controller, and a UHF TV link. The control link was relatively straightforward, the video receiver was a modified TV set, but the UHF TV transmitter took 18 laborious months of tweaking tiny capacitors and half centimeter turns of wire. The resulting robot was ugly, reflecting its rushed assembly, and marginally functional (the airplane proportional controller was very inaccurate). Like an old car, it needed (and needs) constant repair and replacement of parts, major and minor, that break.

Schmidt then wrote a program for the PDP-6 which drove the cart in real time (but with its motors set to run very slowly) along a wide white line. It worked occasionally. Following a white line with a raised TV camera and a computer turns out to be much more difficult than following a line at close range with a photocell tracker. The camera scene is full of high contrast extraneous detail, and the lighting conditions are unreliable. This simple program taxed the processing power of the PDP-6. It also clearly demonstrated the need for more accurate and reliable hardware if more ambitious navigation problems were to be tackled. Schmidt wrote up the results and finished his degree.

Bruce Baumgart picked up the cart banner, and announced an ambitious approach that would involve modelling the world in great detail, and by which the cart could deduce its position by comparing the image it saw through its camera with images produced from its model by a 3D drawing program. He succeeded reasonably well with the graphics end of the problem.

Figure 2.1: The old AI lab and some of the surrounding terrain, about 1968

The real world part was a dismal failure. He began with a rebuild of the cart control electronics, replacing the very inaccurate analog link with a supposedly more repeatable digital one. He worked as single-handedly as did Schmidt, but without the benefit of prior experience with hardware construction. The end result was a control link that, because of a combination of design flaws and undetected bugs, was virtually unusable. One time out of three the cart moved in a direction opposite to which it had been commanded, left for right or forwards for backwards.

During this period a number of incoming students were assigned to the “cart project”. Each correctly perceived the situation within a year, and went on to something else. The cart's reputation as a serious piece of research apparatus, never too high, sank to new depths.

I came to the AI lab, enthusiastic and naive, with the specific intention of working with the cart. I'd built a series of small robots, beginning in elementary school, and the cart, of whose existence, but not exact condition, I'd learned, seemed like the logical next step. Conditions at the lab were liberal enough that my choice was not met with termination of financial support, but this largesse did not easily extend to equipment purchases.

Lynn Quam, who had done considerable work with stereo mapping from pictures from the Mariners 6 and 7 Mars missions, expressed an interest in the cart around this time, for its clear research value for Mars rovers. We agreed to split up the problem (the exact goals for the collaboration were never completely clear; mainly they were to get the cart to do as much as possible). He would do the vision, and I would get the control hardware working adequately and write motor subroutines which could translate commands like move a meter forward and a half to the right into appropriate steering and drive signals.

I debugged, then re-designed and rebuilt the control link to work reliably, and wrote a routine that incorporated a simulation of the cart, to drive it (this subroutine was resurrected in the final months of the obstacle avoider effort, and is described in chapter 8). I was very elated by my quick success, and spent considerable time taking the cart on joy rides. I would open the big machine room doors near the cart's parking place, and turn on the cart. Then I would rush to my office, tune in the cart video signal on a monitor, start a remote control program, and, in armchair and air conditioned comfort, drive the cart out the doors. I would steer it along the outer deck of the lab to one of three ramps on different sides of the building. I then drove it down the narrow ramp (they were built for deliveries), and out into the driveway or onto the grass, to see (on my screen) what there was to see. Later I would drive it back the same way, then get up to close the doors and power it down. With increasing experience, I became increasingly cocky. During the 1973 IJCAI, held at Stanford, I repeatedly drove it up and down the ramps, and elsewhere, for the amusement of the crowds visiting the AI lab during an IJCAI sponsored winetasting.

Shortly after the IJCAI my luck ran out. Preparing to drive it down the front ramp for a demonstration, I misjudged the position of the right edge by a few centimeters. The cart's right wheels missed the ramp, and the picture on my screen slowly rotated 90°, then turned into noise. Outside, the cart was lying on its side, with acid from its batteries spilling into the electronics. Sigh.

The sealed TV camera was not damaged. The control link took less than a month to resurrect. Schmidt's video transmitter was another matter. I spent a total of nine frustrating months first trying, unsuccessfully, to repair it, then building (and repeatedly rebuilding) a new one from the old parts using a cleaner design found in a ham magazine and a newly announced UHF amplifier module from RCA. The new one almost worked, though its tuning was touchy. The major problem was a distortion in the modulation. The RCA module was designed for FM, and did a poor job on the AM video signal. Although TV sets found the broadcast tolerable, our video digitizer was too finicky.

During these nine difficult months I wrote to potential manufacturers of such transmitters, and also inquired about borrowing the video link used by Shakey, which had been retired by SRI. SRI, after due deliberation, turned me down. Small video transmitters are not off the shelf items; the best commercial offer I got was for a two watt transmitter costing $4000.

Four kilobucks was an order of magnitude more money than had ever been put into cart hardware by the AI lab, though it was was considerably less than had been spent on salary in Schmidt's 18 months and my 9 months of transmitter hacking. I begged for it and got an agreement from John McCarthy that I could buy a transmitter, using ARPA money, after demonstrating a capability to do vision.

During the next month I wrote a program that picked a number of features in one picture (the “interest operator” of Chapter 5 was invented here) of a motion stereo pair, and found them in the other image with a simple correlator, did a crude distance calculation, and generated a fancy display. Apparently this was satisfactory; the transmitter was ordered.

By this time Quam had gone on to other things. With the cart once again functional, I wrote a program that drove it down the road in a straight line by servoing on points it found on the distant horizon with the interest operator and tracked with the correlator. Like the current obstacle avoider, it did not run in real time, but in lurches. That task was much easier, and even on the KA-10, our main processor at the time, each lurch took at most 15 seconds of real time. The distance travelled per lurch was variable; as small as a quarter meter when the program detected significant variations from its desired straight path, repeatedly doubling up to many meters when everything seemed to be working. The program also observed the cart's response to commands, and updated a response model which it used to guide future commands. The program was reliable and fun to watch, except that the remote control link occasionally failed badly. The cause appeared to be interference from passing CBers. The citizens band boom had started, and our 100 milliwatt control link, which operated in the CB band, was not up to the competition.

I replaced the model airplane transmitter and receiver by standard (but modified) CB transceivers, increasing the broadcast power to 5 watts. To test this and a few other improvements in the hardware, I wrote an updated version of the horizon tracker which incorporated a new idea, the faster and more powerful “binary search” correlator of Chapter 6. This was successful, and I was ready for bigger game.

Obstacle avoidance could be accomplished using many of the techniques in the horizon tracker. A dense cloud of features on objects in the world could be tracked as the cart rolled forward, and a 3D model of their position and the cart's motion through them could be deduced from their relative motion in the image. Don Gennery had already written a camera solving subroutine, used by Quam and Hannah, which was capable of such a calculation.

I wrote a program which drove the cart, tracking features near and far, and feeding them to Gennery's subroutine. The results were disappointing. Even after substantial effort, aggravated by having only a very poor a priori model of cart motion, enough of the inevitable correlation errors escaped detection to make the camera solver converge to the wrong answer about 10 to 20% of the time. This error rate was too high for a vehicle that would need to navigate through at least tens of such steps. Around this time I happened to catch some small lizards, that I kept for a while in a terrarium. Watching them, I observed an interesting behavior.

The lizards caught flies by pouncing on them. Since flies are fast, this requires speed and 3D precision. Each lizard had eyes on opposite sides of its head; the visual fields could not overlap significantly, ruling out stereo vision. But before a pounce, a lizard would fix an eye on its victim, and sway its head slowly from side to side. This seemed a sensible way to range.

My obstacle avoiding task was defeating the motion stereo approach, and the lizard's solution seemed promising. I built a stepping motor mechanism that could slide the cart's camera from side to side in precise increments. The highly redundant information available from this apparatus broke the back of the problem, and made the obstacle avoider that is the subject of this thesis possible.

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