2011: The Year of the Personal Robot?

A standardized robotics kit promises to advance the field in ways not previously possible, making robot assistants, especially for elder care, more affordable


What does 2011 hold for the field of robotics? Plenty, if 2010 is any indication. This will not be the year that mobile, artificially intelligent robot nurses assume the responsibility of caring for the world's growing elderly population, but it does promise to be a pivotal time for the development of the underlying technology that will enable safe and reliable automated elder care, not to mention other services that robots are expected to perform in the coming decade.

Thanks to a standardized platform introduced in 2010, roboticists can now collaborate as never before. Last May, Willow Garage, a Menlo Park, Calif., maker of robot hardware and software, released a test version of its personal robot platform. The PR2 includes a mobile base, two arms for manipulation, a suite of sensors and two computers, each with eight processing cores, 24 gigabytes of RAM and two terabytes of hard-disk space. The out-of-the-box robot, which costs $400,000, also features an operating system that handles the robot's computation and hardware manipulation functions.

"There are a lot of innovations in the PR2, but the most significant thing from my perspective is that it is a standardized, well-designed, well-tested platform that has a whole bunch of software that works right out of the box," says Charles Kemp, an assistant biomedical engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. "You never had that situation before."

Kemp and his team at Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab, which he formed in 2007, are focused on creating robots that can safely and effectively help care for senior citizens. The machines would go beyond current efforts to create bots able to follow the elderly around their homes to provide them with Internet access and remind them to take their medicine. For starters, the Healthcare Robotics Lab researchers want their robots to be able to open doors and drawers to retrieve objects such as pill bottles while being guided by a laser pointer, radio signals or touch.

Kemp's lab is one of 16 institutions that experimented with the PR2 during the latter half of 2010. South Korea's Samsung Electronics is using the PR2 to enhance the company's existing robotics research in a country that hopes to put a robot in every home by 2020. The Bosch Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., part of electronics and appliances maker The Bosch Group, has begun a two-year project to integrate its advanced sensor technology—including microelectromechanical system (MEMS), accelerometers, gyroscopes,  force sensors, and air-pressure sensors—to improve the PR2's performance and reliability. Other beta-testing sites include Stanford University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the French National Center for Scientific Research's (CNRS) Laboratory of Analysis and Architecture of Systems.

Kemp sees the combination of his PR2, named GATSBII, and a free and open-source robot operating system as a way to accelerate his lab's work with the help of a standardized platform and a budding community of roboticists working with the same tools who can now offer more practical advice to one another. "We're actually releasing things that other people can use, and we're using other people's things," Kemp says.

Prior to GATSBII, Kemp and his team used parts from a variety of suppliers to build three different mobile manipulators. The first EL-E, built in 2007 to perform assistive tasks for sufferers of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), which impairs physical motor functions. The researchers have since built two more robots: Dusty, which has a lift tray designed to pick objects up off the floor; and Cody, whose two arms and omnidirectional mobile base resemble those of GATSBII. Unlike GATSBII, Cody is the product of many different manufacturers, including Meka Robotics, which supplied the arms, and Segway, which delivered the omnidirectional mobile base. In the cases of EL-E, Dusty and Cody, Kemp and his team designed the robots and then found the parts they needed to actually build them.

*Correction (1/04/11): This was edited after posting. It originally referred to GATSBII as "Gatsby."

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.

Human factors
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.

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