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Getting robots to do the laundry and the dishes

Willow Garage is offering 11 research groups use of robots with an open-source platform to push personal general-use robotics rapidly forward.

Willow Garage will offer 11 research teams free use of its PR2 robots for two years. The robots, built with an open-source software platform, can be programmed to do many tasks.

For years, one of the dreams of robot enthusiasts and researchers has been a single robot capable of performing a wide variety of tasks. But while single-purpose robots are everywhere, the general-purpose vision has remained pretty much a fantasy.

Now, however, groups of roboticists at 11 institutions around the world will get a chance to take part in a beta project (see video below) that could change that dynamic forever. On Tuesday, Willow Garage, a Menlo Park, Calif., robotics firm, said that in June it will offer each of the 11 teams a two-year loan of a Personal Robot 2 (PR2), a sophisticated machine that is fully programmable and that has two arms, a "rich sensor suite," a mobile base, and 16 CPU cores. Also included is the free, open-source Robot Operating System (ROS) framework that controls the PR2 and that comes with software libraries for perception, navigation, and manipulation.

And for the first time, these researchers will have a chance not only to program a general-purpose robot but also to contribute the work they've done on Willow Garage's open-source robotics platform to a wide community of researchers, a forward leap that could allow others to quickly advance the state of the art.

According to Willow Garage, the 11 PR2s are worth more than $4 million and will go to teams at 10 universities in Japan, Belgium, Germany, and the United States, as well as to researchers at Bosch, a giant tools and parts firm. Eric Berger, the co-director of the Willow Garage personal robotics platform program, said that the company received 78 serious applications and in the end chose the 11 finalists that will get the chance to work on a series of research and development initiatives, sharing their progress with the community as they go.

Ultimately, Willow Goal is betting its $4 million-plus worth of robots on the goals of fostering breakthroughs in personal robotics; building the open-source robotics community; developing new productivity tools and components; creating never-before imagined applications for personal, general-purpose robots; and accelerating the progress of new robotics development by allowing members of the community to see and build on what their peers have already achieved.

'Are you kidding?'
Asked if the Willow Garage initiative is an important step forward for the field of robotics, former NASA astronaut, Singularity University faculty member, and robotics expert Dan Barry said, "Are you kidding? It's phenomenal that they're giving away these state-of-the-art general-purpose autonomous robots."

And it's vitally important to put the PR2s in the hands of some of the best and smartest researchers on the planet, Barry said, because while the PR2 is an advanced hardware platform already, its utility is limited at this point. So, Barry explained, you could bring a PR2 into your home today, but there's not much that it could do.

Put it in the hands of leading robotics faculty and students at universities around the world, though, and the platform begins to expand exponentially, Barry suggested. "So you have to get them out there," he said, "into the community where clever people can use them and work on their raison d'etre."

Willow Garage first put out its call for proposals for what to do with the PR2 last January. But already this year, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley programmed one of the robots to fold towels, and within two months, was able to get the PR2 to neatly fold 50 towels in a row. But while that was an impressive feat, Berger is excited to see what kinds of applications will result when there are 11 teams with hundreds of researchers working on the PR2 platform.

One of the teams that was selected to receive a free loan of a PR2 was the UC Berkeley team. A grad student there had previously programmed a PR2 to fold towels. Now the team there wants to teach its robot to do all the tasks involved in doing a load of laundry. University of California-Berkeley

Broadly speaking, Berger said, the 11 teams chosen to receive the PR2s proposed using the robots for applications in two main areas. First, he explained, are tools and capabilities, things like reading maps, recognizing objects, precise calibration of an on-board camera, and much more. Second are applications and demonstrations that use all the robot's tools and components and combine them so that it can do things like fetch an object, open a door, or any number of housekeeping tasks. Much of the latter category is designed for helping disabled people with things they cannot easily do on their own.

"There's people looking at doing a complete housework cycle," Berger said, that starts with "dishes in a cupboard, sets the table, puts them in the dishwasher and then back in the cabinet."

Those chores, of course, present a robot with some very difficult tasks, like understanding how drawers and refrigerators open, as well as how to tell multiple objects apart. Similarly, one team is looking at getting the robot to learn how to carry an object through a crowded space. The Berkeley team will expand on its towel-folding work and now focus on getting its PR2 to do laundry.

Science-fiction promises
To Andrew Ng, a computer science professor at Stanford and a member of the team there that was one of the 11 chosen by Willow Garage, being able to work on a PR2 is a chance to move toward the place many have long hoped robots would go.

"It's been a longstanding dream in robotics to develop technology to put a robot in every home," Ng said. "Science-fiction has promised us these housekeeper robots for decades, and we still don't have them."

The main reason we don't, especially given that many robots have the physical capability to handle many household tasks, Ng added, is because the software has never existed that could transform a single-purpose robot into one that could take care of many responsibilities. But by making its Robot Operating System open-source, and its PR2 robots programmable, Willow Garage is tackling that unfulfilled promise head-on.

A wireframe image of one of the Willow Garage PR2 robots.

To be sure, there are countless robotics groups at universities and other research institutions, Ng explained, but most have been working on their own hardware, somewhat blind to the constant iterative improvements being made in the field. Plus, because each of those robots is a closed system, no two groups have been able to swap software.

"This is one of the reasons that Willow Garage's robots are so exciting," Ng said. "They're making robots available to different research groups to focus on software problems without having to worry about putting together and maintaining their own hardware...Willow Garage, by putting out a standardized piece of hardware, will enable research groups to share ideas and inventions" because groups will be able to share code.

That '70s show
While there certainly has been plenty of progress in robotics over the years, Barry likens the state of the field to where computers were in the 1970s. To many at that time, he explained, the idea of buying a computer was ludicrous because there weren't yet any must-have applications. But when programs like VisiCalc and word processors came along, it suddenly made sense to get a personal computer.

"That's where we are with robotics right now," Barry said. "You could not conceive of things in the 1970s like YouTube...We're going to see something really similar with robotics. Twenty years from now, we'll slap our heads and say, 'How could we not have thought of that,' but we can't think of [those robotics applications] right now."

And if Willow Garage is successful with its goals and Barry is right that we'll see the emergence of applications we can't imagine today, that means there's a lot of exciting things to come.

"I think it's absolutely vital that [Willow Garage is giving away the PR2s]," Barry said, "and it's incredibly generous. And I can't wait to see what people come up with."