Not convinced that robots are the wave of the future? Maybe an ice cold lager will change your mind. Willow Garage has pulled off the ultimate engineering feat: teaching a robot to fetch you a beer from the fridge. As part of their summer 'hackathon' series, a team of Willow Garage engineers toiled for a week straight to develop a new demonstration of their PR2 robot's prowess. They succeeded with flying colors. Not only can the PR2 select the correct brew from the fridge, it can deliver, and even open the beer as needed. That's right, all you humans have to do is drink and relax. Prepare yourself for some major robot-envy as you check out the PR2 deliver much needed refreshment in the video below.
This is the third hackathon we've seen from Willow Garage this summer - the PR2 has already learned how to shoot pool and clean up after a party. It's starting to seem like the Silicon Valley startup is getting ready to open the coolest robot bar ever. (O'Asimov's? Bar2D2? Toasters?) I continue to be impressed with these hackathon projects, not just for their fun content, but for the incredible speed at which they are accomplished. One week's work is practically nothing in terms of research and development, yet Willow Garage engineers consistently pull off some great feats. How are they are able to work so quickly? It could be that the open source library (ROS) provides a means of recycling previous work and enabling future progress. Or it could be that engineers will work harder when they have the promise of a liquid reward:
This 'Beer Me, Robot' hackathon highlights several noteworthy capabilities of the PR2, some of which we've seen before. A web-browser interface allows a user to order a beer through the robot, essentially sending commands to the bot via the internet. The robot identifies the various beer bottles while using its body to hold the door open. I'm most impressed that the robot can look for and be cued off of recognizing a human face - when the bot delivers the beer it waits for you to approach before it lets you pull the beer out of its hand. That ability is going to see a lot of use in the years ahead, and not just in deliveries. There are many applications where you want a robot to wait for and interact with humans, especially in medicine.
Often with these hackathons, engineers use a few cheats and have to leave in a few limitations. Clearly, the PR2 had to have some hardware add-ons to make beer delivery possible. Cupholders were added to the base, and the refrigerator was fitted with a sloped beer shelf. Those are fairly reasonable hacks, but very task-specific. Ultimately we want a humanoid robot to accomplish the vast majority of its chores without any modifications. We also want our beers not to be shaken so much that they spray all over us. But, y'know, I'm not going to look a gift robot in the mouth.
As with the other week-long engineering projects coming out of Willow Garage this summer, the Beer Me Robot endeavor is equal parts demonstration and innovation. Clearly it's fun to watch a robot fetch someone a cold beer. However the real story is that ROS and the open source coding of the PR2 allow for developers to share and build off each others work. That enables the speed of the hackathon and insures that whatever usable code was created for this project can be recycled as needed in future hacks. One day the ROS library will be so full of helpful code that robot programmers will have to do little more than string together previous work. Which will be important, because by that time those programmers are probably going to be pretty buzzed.
Maybe the next hackathon should be: "I'm home. Take me drunk, Robot."
[image credit: Willow Garage]
[source: Willow Garage Blog]