Electronic Design

Robots Finally Have That Personal Touch

Robots make the transition from traditional uses to service and retail applications.

Extending from the factory floor and into your living room, the personal robot’s time has arrived. These devices have pushed past uses as expensive and cute toys like Sony’s Aibo and into sophisticated and affordable products that perform a number of functions in and around the home. Allied Business Intelligence Research says that the personal robotics market, which includes robotic toys, educational robots, and task-based robots, will reach $15 billion by 2015.

In the January 2007 issue of Scientific American, Microsoft’s Bill Gates predicted that the service robot market will massively increase over the next few years. In his article, titled “A Robot In Every Home,” Gates argued that there are similarities between the 1980s computer market and today’s service robot market. In the 1980s, the computer market was expensive and reserved for users with deep technical knowledge. The same could be said of robots now.

AnthroTronix, which designs, develops, and tests systems that optimize human-technology interaction, is developing tele-rehabilitation tools to motivate and integrate therapy, learning, and play. These technologies are being developed in conjunction with therapists, educators, parents, and children with disabilities. Once commercialized, AnthroTronix’s CosmoBot robotics toolkit will be available to educators, schools, rehabilitation facilities, clinicians, and the general public. Its components will be compatible with off-the-shelf software, switches, and sensors.

Robotic bartending systems can be seen in some large bars and lounges, doing the work of several human bartenders, but much faster. These systems serve mixed drinks, draft beer, wine, sodas, and juices, highlighting potential applications in the growing service sector. To demonstrate the usefulness of service robotics, some companies have used them at trade shows to serve drinks.

The centerpiece of the RoboBar from Motoman is a humanoid machine featuring a tuxedo-clad body and a flat-screen “video” head displaying a face. One of its two arms grips glasses while the other picks up and uncaps beer bottles. The glass-handling arm moves to a tower fitted with four dispensing guns that can each pour 16 liquors, mixes, juices, and wines.

Other robotic systems now routinely and automatically fill and dispense millions of drug prescriptions. Technologies like those from Parata Systems can be seen in large pharmacy chains like Walgreens, as well as in independent and institutional pharmacies.

In the retail food industry, robots move pallets of frozen foods in subzero freezers. They also now package foods. Certain manufacturers are investigating end-user food markets like restaurants, where robots would serve customers. The use of robots in education and entertainment has been well established. Some robots even compete in sports events like soccer.

Kiva Systems makes robots that are revolutionizing inventory management of goods in warehouses and storage areas. Using these robots, operators can stand still while the products are brought to them. Pallets, cases, and orders stored on inventory pods are picked up and moved by a fleet of mobile robotic drive units. As a result, any product can go to any operator. Staples and Walgreens are two of Kiva Systems’ largest customers.

Robots are moving from traditional and relatively mature industrial applications, which aren’t growing markets, past the retail market, and into the home. The home market has great potential as robot costs drop to affordable levels and performance improves. Such robots are assuming roles in construction, refuse and other collection, monitoring, education, entertainment, personal assistance, and much more.

Already, several personal robots are available for use as home sentries, lawn mowers, swimming pool cleaners, entertainment consoles, and assistants for the elderly, handicapped, and those with limited mobility. For example, iRobot has sold more than 2.5 million Roomba vacuums for domestic cleaning (Fig. 1, top).

Similarly, the 6.9-kg FloorBot from Australiabased Floorbotics Corp. serves retail outlets, offices, and homes. It has a smart navigation system and can run for 40 minutes on a fourhour battery charge. Measuring 350 mm in diameter, it can pick up 1.2 liters of dirt (Fig. 1, left). Other companies like Belgium-based Belrobotics offer robotic lawnmowers for both homes and large-area applications like golf courses.

A key R&D area in personal robotics focuses on better robot environmental awareness and clearer interaction with users. Robots need greater operational autonomy in performing different tasks, requiring advances in cognitive capabilities helped by better sensors and artificial-intelligence algorithms. Much of this work may be in the lab, but it looks promising. In fact, some of the work may be on the cusp of commercialization.

Researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University are collaborating on a simple “point and click” interaction system. Instead of using a verbal command like “pick up the cup near the couch,” which would require elaborate voice and image recognition software, the system uses a laser pointer (Fig. 2).

The user shines the laser pointer at the object that should be retrieved, such as a towel, book, bottle, cup, or telephone. The robot, nicknamed El-E (pronounced “Ellie”), uses its custom-built omnidirectional camera to scan its entire environment and find the laser-marked object. It then moves toward the object and picks it up, taking advantage of the fact that many indoor objects can be found on smooth, flat surfaces that have a uniform appearance. Finally, El-E brings the object back to the user.

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Developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, uBot-5 is a promising robotic platform for mobile manipulation in social telepresence applications (Fig. 3). Designed to be economical yet highly capable, durable, and safe to operate, it’s equipped with an LCD touchscreen monitor and a webcam.

Funded by the European Union (EU), researchers with the COSPAL (Cognitive Systems Using Perception-Action Learning) program have combined techniques from artificial intelligence for symbolic reasoning with artificial neural networks that associate percepts and states in a bidirectional manner.

Feedback loops are established through the continuous and symbolic parts of the system, which allow perception-action feedback at several levels. After an initial bootstrapping phase, incremental learning techniques train the system simultaneously at different levels, allowing adaptation and exploration (Fig. 4). The COSPAL architecture is expected to enable the design of systems that show autonomous behavior.

“Developing systems in classical artificial intelligence is essentially a top-down approach, whereas in artificial neural networks it is a bottom-up approach,” says Michael Felsberg, a researcher at the Computer Vision Laboratory of Linköping University in Sweden and member of the COSPAL program.

“The problem is that, used individually, these systems have major shortcomings when it comes to developing advanced artificial cognitive- system architectures. Using an artificial neural network is too trivial to solve complex tasks, while classical artificial intelligence cannot solve them if a system has not been programmed to do so,” says Felsberg.

Through its Unit E5 “Cognition” program, the EU has funded a five-year project to study the cognition and implementation of a robot the size of a two-year-old child, called the iCub (Fig. 5). The RobotCub Consortium will use it to study cognition through biologically motivated algorithms. The ultimate goal for the opensource- software project is a robot version with 54 degrees of freedom, with seven for each arm, nine for each hand, six for the head, three for the torso and spine, and six for each leg.

And, a major breakthrough in robotic-awareness capability comes from Evolution Robotics. Its NorthStar 2.0 autonomous navigation system enables office and home robots to truly be aware of their environment to perform everyday tasks with total autonomy. The first product to use NorthStar, which combines GPS, radar, and auto-pilot technologies, is the Rovio robot from WowWee Group Ltd.

There’s now a greater effort to provide robotic systems designers with the right hardware and software development platforms. An example of this trend was founded by inventor Dean Kamen in 1989, called FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), which focuses on the youngest designers. Its accessible and innovative student competitions build self-confidence, knowledge, and life skills while motivating young people to pursue opportunities in science, technology, and engineering.

The Microsoft Robotics Studio, a Windowsbased environment for robot control and simulation, targets academic, hobbyist, and commercial developers. It handles a wide variety of robot hardware, with features like a visual programming tool, the Microsoft Visual Programming Language for creating and debugging robot applications, Web-based and Windows-based interfaces, 3D simulation (including hardware acceleration), a lightweight services-oriented runtime, easy access to a robot’s sensors and actuators via a .NET-based concurrent library implementation, and support for a number of languages, including C# and Visual Basic .NET, JScript, and IronPython.

CoroWare designs and develops unmanned software for robotics applications. As one of the first third-party companies to support the development of the Robotics Studio, it recently launched PlusPack, a collection of applications services, tools, assets, and utilities that complement the platform.

Many designers use National Instruments’ LabVIEW and graphical system design to create autonomous vehicles, humanoid robots, fixed-base industrial robots, and personal/home service robots around the world. The company’s suite of development tools is a common staple for developers of robotic platforms.

Several companies are trying to help robot manufacturers and end users with a universal robotic platform associated with state-of-theart software modules (for speech recognition, face detection, and other functions) to simplify the development of robotic products. France’s Gostai is working on various applications for home robotics, such as home surveillance, elderly care, and entertainment, with the focus of making these applications robot-independent.

“A key issue on the market is that robots are incompatible, which makes application development for various hardware parts a difficult task,” says Gostai CEO Jean-Christophe Baillie. “We solve this problem with our Urbi technology, a kind of Java for Robots that is compatible with 15 different robots on market. Urbi is in many ways similar to Microsoft’s Robotics Studio, but with key differences. These include greater simplicity and more flexibility. It also works with Linux as well as Windows.”

Yet achieving some sort of standardization for robotics will be challenging. Some experts believe the most useful technologies will become the de facto standard. They point out that it’s difficult to develop standards without knowing the target applications, the hardware requirements, the computational requirements, and other factors. Down the road, they see top-down design approaches, bottom-up implementations, and iterative refinements to more closely suit end applications.

We may be a long way off in developing personal robots that can match human emotional complexity and live side-by-side with human beings, but this isn’t so distant. In Japan, where robots are taken for granted, robots serve as receptionists, make sushi, plant rice, tend paddies, serve tea, greet company guests, and chatter away at public displays. The level of R&D for robotics in Japan far surpasses the rest of the world.

Nonetheless, there’s a lot of optimism worldwide. Robosoft’s home-centric Robuter is based on the company’s robuBOX generic robotic middleware, which in turn is based on Microsoft’s Robotics Studio, allowing the robot to be customized to any task. Robuter combines the advantages of Internet and robotics technologies to aid people that are handicapped or have limited mobility. Robosoft foresees the commercialization of this system by 2011.

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