Why HPC Matters: Pushing the Boundaries of Advanced Robotics

High-performance computing systems are taking robotic systems to new heights and — in some underwater cases — new depths.

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Dell EMC

A few years ago, a colorful children’s book called Robots, Robots Everywhere was published. This book depicted robots doing everything from planting crops to exploring the underwater world. And while those depictions of happy-go-lucky robots were entirely playful, the story itself was spot on. In today’s world, robots really are everywhere.

In many manufacturing facilities, robots now do the bulk of the work, placing parts, assembling components and welding things together. In distribution centers, robots pick products off shelves, pack them up and shuttle them to the loading dock. And down on the farm, you might find robots — or “agbots,” as they are sometimes called — taking care of chores like harvesting apples and applying fertilizer.

Want to have some fun with a robot? At CES 2018, the annual Consumer Electronics Show, conference attendees had the opportunity to play ping-pong with a robot — and the robot was pretty good at the game. But, of course, the robot had artificial intelligence on its side, to adapt its game to the skill levels of different opponents.1

There’s a common thread to these and countless other examples of robots at work in our world — and in points beyond, like NASA’s Opportunity rover, which has been exploring the surface of Mars for more than 5,000 Martian days.2 That thread is high-performance computing (HPC) systems that enable the development and operation of robotics systems.

This is the case at the University of Pisa, which draws on the power of HPC to propel a robust research program devoted to the development of methodologies and technologies for robotics and embedded automation. With the benefit of systems and technologies from Dell EMC, Intel and other suppliers, the robotics researchers at the university’s Research Center “E.Piaggio” explore fields ranging from mobile robotics to hands and haptics — or things related to the sense of touch.

Ready for a deeper dive — literally? Researchers affiliated with the E.Piaggio center push the boundaries of underwater robotics with research into vehicle development, underwater communication and underwater cooperation. The team works cooperatively with outside partners on the development of underwater robotic vehicles, or small submarines that operate without a helmsman. These fearless vehicles are designed to accomplish tasks in environments that would be hostile and hazardous to humans.3,4


A hot topic for ISC

Robotics has been designed as one of 13 topics that will be emphasized in sessions at the upcoming ISC High Performance 2018 conference in Frankfurt, which takes place June 24-28.5 And at last year’ ISC 2017 gathering, one of the featured topics was cloud robotics, or the use of intelligent robotics systems in conjunction HPC resources accessed via the cloud.6


Many such use cases for the development and operation of robotic systems leverage the power of machine learning and deep learning algorithms that help robots get better at what they do, even without much human intervention. And it’s HPC that makes all of that go.

For example, China drew some headlines in 2016 when it deployed a security robot in a Shenzhen airport with a connection to the nation’s lightning-fast Tianhe-2 supercomputer and its cloud services for backend data processing.7 The robot patrols airport facilities and identifies potential threats, using sophisticated capabilities like facial recognition.

These are the types of robotic applications that become possible in a connected world with an abundance of computational power and sophisticated technologies like machine learning. And that’s why we now have, as the story goes, “robots, robots everywhere.”8

For a closer look at the University of Pisa’s robotics research program, visit the E.Piaggio research center. To learn more about the university’s use of HPC and machine learning in its research programs, read the Dell EMC case study “Empowered Research: Using machine learning to push the boundaries of knowledge at the University of Pisa.”



Making a difference with HPC

High performance computing touches virtually every aspect of our lives. HPC is making weather forecasts more accurate, cancer therapies more precise, fraud protection more foolproof and products more efficient. In this series of articles, we explore these and other use cases that capitalize on HPC and its convergence with data analytics to illustrate why HPC matters to all of us.


1 BBC News, “CES 2018: Omron's ping pong robot keeps ball in play,” Jan. 12, 2018.

2 NASA, “New Day for Longest-Working Mars Rover,” Feb. 16, 2018; “5,000 Days on Mars; Solar-Powered Rover Approaching 5,000th Martian Dawn,” Feb. 15, 2018.

3 Centro di Ricerca Enrico Piaggio video, “Underwater Robotics at University of Pisa,” Jan. 25, 2018.

4 Centro di Ricerca Enrico Piaggio video, “Research Center ‘E.Piaggio’ – University of Pisa,” March 29, 2017.

5 ISC 2018, “ISC High Performance 2018 Invitation Booklet.”

6 ISC 2017, “Robots in Crowds – Robots and Clouds.”

7 ComputerWorld, “China’s policing robot: Cattle prod meets supercomputer,” Oct. 31, 2016.

8 “Robots, Robots Everywhere!” by Sue Fliess (author) and Bob Staake (illustrator).