The benefits to be had from automating household tasks is the dream of, well, everyone. After a long week of work, wasting your precious few days of sweet, glorious freedom on doing laundry, vacuuming the carpet and scrubbing your toilet among other domesticated horrors is a burdensome reality most of us endure with great reluctance and plenty of groaning. Fortunately, a team of engineering experts who founded the company Willow Garage have developed an open source and open platform personal robot that can be programmed to fulfill almost any task.
For a mere $280,000, the Personal Robot 2 (PR2) can be yours to develop and program. In fact, the PR2 robot is unique in the convenience it offers researchers as all the hardware and software that comes stock can be tweaked, innovated upon, and adjusted at will. Given the PR2 robot’s highly durable parts, its ability to perform tasks is limited only by a research team’s imagination. Everything about the PR2 is “designed to make it easy to develop and test robotics applications and technologies.”
Willow Garage has also focused on encouraging a vibrant community of programmers and institutions to collaborate on pushing the PR2 robot’s capabilities. So far, this spirit of open source innovation has led to a number of surprising advances in robotics and machine learning. Although assembly line robots have been around for decades, they are limited to fulfilling repetitive, predictable tasks that involve the handling and manipulation of rigid objects. The PR2 robot, however, can be designed to perceive and manipulate “deformable objects” that are highly flexible, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and behave unpredictably when touched. According to Assistant Professor Pieter Abbeel of Berkeley’s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences, “Many important problems in robotics and computer vision involve deformable objects, and the challenges posed by robotic towel-folding reflect important challenges inherent in robotic perception and manipulation for deformable objects.” Thanks in part to the spirit of collaboration and innovation fostered by Willow Garage, a team of UC Berkeley researchers were able to program a PR2 robot to fold laundry, taking the first step in overcoming the issue of “deformable objects” posed in robotics.
Watching the PR2 robot fold clothes is impressive to behold, and is no doubt a harbinger of what robots in the near future will be able to achieve. Of course, there is much work to be done. Most of the PR2 robot demonstration videos have been significantly sped up. The time it takes the PR2 robot to complete even the simplest of tasks can often take up to an hour or more.
In a more recent advance designed to address some of the most seminal issues facing humankind, researchers have programmed a PR robot to grab and deliver a beer. College fraternity houses rejoice!
Here, members from Willow Garage play a game of pool with the PR2 robot.
Willow Garage has also introduced two new models with a focus on projection and movability. One of them is the TurtleBot, a moving platform that uses Kinect technology to rove about your house, take pictures, and bring you food. Another robot is the BeamPro, an audio-video platform that allows users to project real-time video of themselves giving a presentation or attending a meeting remotely. Although somewhat crude in what these two models are promising to deliver, they are perfect examples of the variety of applications and settings robotics are increasingly designed to offer. Now, if they can only invent a robot extension of myself that can perform my job while I stay at home and enjoy the easy life…