The organizations that have been testing the PR2s since their release participate in bimonthly teleconferences, where they discuss software code that they have written for their robots and released openly for others to use. "The PR2 is really inspiring more efforts in open-source code" that people can share, Kemp says. With the PR2, "you have a robot that can run someone else's code" and encourages sharing "through the community that Willow Garage has fostered." Kemp's lab has been strong in terms of robot manipulation and movement, he says, but not so much in mapping and navigating over long distances. By working with other PR2 testers, Kemp and his team now have access to other research they can use to improve their own system, without having to reinvent the wheel.
The scientific method, which demands repeatable results that others can verify, has also played a role. It had not typically been a part of robotics because the field largely relied on custom hardware and software. Robotics researchers rarely compared what they were doing with previous efforts in a direct way because the systems were so different, Kemp says. "Now that people have the same robots, they can run the same code, so there's really a chance to see what actually does work better."
Kemp's lab is also collaborating closely with Georgia Tech's Human Factors and Aging Laboratory, headed by psychology professor Wendy Rogers. Rogers and Kemp are both part of the university's Aware Home Research Initiative (AHRI), an interdisciplinary effort to address the fundamental technical, design and social challenges required to construct a home that enhances a resident's quality of life or helps them to maintain independence as they age.
Robots are expected to play a key role in the "aware home," although it is unclear exactly what that role will be. "So far we've done a survey of older adults in the Atlanta area, and they were quite open to the idea of having robots in their home environment," Rogers says. "We'll be looking to determine what tasks older adults, over 65, are open to having done in the house, and then Charlie's team is going to program its PR2 to do those tasks. In the spring, we're going to move our PR2 over to the aware home and bring older adults there to give them a chance to interact with the robots in that home environment."
Georgia Tech is hardly the first to envision robots playing a crucial role in caring for the elderly—France's Robosoft, GeckoSystems of Conyers, Ga., and others already have prototype devices aimed at helping the elderly better communicate with the outside world. Healthcare Robotics Lab's work may be at earlier stage of development, but its open, communal approach to GATSBII (not to mention its arms, which neither Robosoft or GeckoSystems have) promises to advance home-based robotics faster and to a higher level than any one group working in isolation.