Willow Garage’s PR2 Robot Plays Janitor By Cleaning Up With a Cart (video)

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A robot that cleans the house? I'll take a dozen.

In its latest step towards becoming a real boy, Willow Garage‘s PR2 has learned another human skill: cleaning up after a party. During a recent intensive engineering session (a hackathon) the Silicon Valley startup trained a PR2 robot to push around a cart and pick up empty containers off a bench. The project had some major limitations but it’s another great demonstration of how the PR2 could become the definitive research platform for humanoid robotics. Check out all the exciting house-keeping action in the video below.

It’s kind of amazing how the PR2 has been taking tentative steps towards becoming a real-life Rosie the Robot from the Jetsons. Just a few months ago we covered how it could fold towels with 100% accuracy and now it’s picking up trash. The rapid progress is made possible by Willow Garage’s open source robotics software (ROS), which allows the team to build off of previous work and establish a common library for robot code. Now that Willow Garage has given away 11 of its PR2s to other research institutions to foster innovation (‘Milestone 4‘ in their business plan) we’re likely to see the rate of progress accelerate. That means even more exciting demonstrations of the PR2’s skills in the future.

As mentioned in the video, there were some pronounced limitations to how the PR2 performed its house-keeping. As we’ve seen before, the PR2 is quite adept at locating objects on a table, picking them up, and putting them down elsewhere. Yet for the house-keeping project Willow Garage took a big shortcut by including a human in the decision making loop. A person helped the bot select which object on the table to pick up (to avoid any problem selecting a full-water bottle or other hazardous container). Clearly having the robot being able to make that decision on its own would have been much more impressive. Still I appreciate the way that Willow Garage compartmentalizes problems. By using a human in the loop they can work on the other aspects of the task and then come back and work on the decision-making code (a complete project in its own right) at a later date.

Similarly, the PR2 had a little problem moving the cart around the space, and Willow Garage mentions that the bot got stuck more easily than normal. As with the grasping task, however, the limitations of this part of the project actually highlight the skills of the robot. Moving an awkward cart around presents several significant coding challenges. First, the PR2 has to compensate for an object outside its normal footprint which requires it to adjust its typical maneuvering strategies. Second, the cart has no special sensors, it’s just an ordinary object like any human would use, so the robot must now deal with a large blind spot in its field of view. Sure the robot gets stuck more often, but the fact that the PR2 can even perform this task with some semblance of dexterity is a measure of success.

After Willow Garage gave away PR2s to other research institutions, I sort of expected the narrative of the company to shift. I thought we would see a lot more of the innovation for the robot platform happening outside Silicon Valley. Clearly Willow Garage doesn’t plan on stopping its own research just because it has 11 other allies around the world. This marks the second cool ‘hackathon’ from Willow Garage this summer (did you see the PR2 shoot pool? It was awesome) and there are more on the way. I’m interested to find out if we’ll see the PR2 performing more of these very human-like activities, or if things will get more esoteric. Either way it’s exciting to see Willow Garage continue making progress towards building the next generation of robots. I’ve already stopped cleaning my apartment in anticipation of house-cleaning bots arriving soon. Hey, Willow Garage, does the PR2 do windows?

[screen capture and video credit: Willow Garage]
[source: Willow Garage Blog]