Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Personal Robots Making News

NASA and General Motors have come together to develop the next generation of dexterous humanoid robots. They just released information about Robonaut2. Although in its present form it's only a torso, arms and head, Robonaut2 will be refitted to be mobile depending on the tasks that it will encounter.
"For GM, this is about safer cars and safer plants," said Alan Taub, GM's vice president for global research and development. "When it comes to future vehicles, the advancements in controls, sensors and vision technology can be used to develop advanced vehicle safety systems. The partnership's vision is to explore advanced robots working together in harmony with people, building better, higher quality vehicles in a safer, more competitive manufacturing environment."
"Our challenge today is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space," said Mike Coats, NASA's Johnson Space Center director. "Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, machines like Robonaut will expand our capability for construction and discovery."
Two weeks earlier Honda premiered "Living with Robots," it's new 6-minute video about ASIMO at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah.  The video addresses preconceptions and fears about robots and shows Honda's efforts to make their robot appealing rather than creepy.  Erik Sofke, writing for Popular Mechanics in an article entitled "Can Robots be Trusted?" discussed the psychological phenomena that occurs when a robot behaves and moves in ways that enhance trust and engagement -- humans think it's alive.  But Sofke also discusses the "uncanny valley" effect which occurs when robots too closely resemble humans -- people get creeped out.

Late last year Waseda University premiered its new Twendy-One, a robo nurse for the elderly.  She is designed to assist in daily household tasks and activities.  Twendy-One is one of many robots being developed in research labs around the world focused on eldercare.

Fraunhofer is Germany's largest applied research association providing advanced technologies of direct utility to private and public enterprises and society and was the lead research facility for the recently completed SME Robot project - an integrated public-private effort to create a new family of small and medium enterprise-suitable robots that exploit robotic potentials for competitive SME manufacturing.  I've referred to this SME Robot public-private project often in The Robot Report - and also in this blog - because it is such a good example of a strategic investment by the EU in an area of industry that can benefit greatly by the innovations developed by the consortium. Although America doesn't have similar public-private partnerships in the commercial sector, in the area of SME manufacturing there is one emerging start-up developing a personal robot: Rodney Brooks' Heartland Robotics.  Heartland is purported to be developing the Obrero robot to be a shop assistant working hand in hand with SME factory workers.

Care-O-Bot is a large scale Fraunhofer IPA experiment towards building a robot built to assist humans in their daily life.  It's an interactive butler and is able to move safely among humans, detect and grasp household objects and safely interact with humans.  In an effort to make the Care-O-Bot more accessible to researchers and potential users, they have redesigned in an open-source repository for different softwares, drivers, simulation and industrial grade hardware components.

Similar in its open resource format, Willow Garage's PR2 is an open and robust robot platform designed from the ground up for developers and researchers. By eliminating the need to first build a hardware system and then re-implement code, the PR2 allows software experts to immediately create new functionality on the robot.

MIT's Media Lab has MDS Nexi; Osaka University has Q2 and CB2; there's the European RobotCub; Vietnam's TOSY Topio; Stanford's PR1; the Intelligent Robotics and Communication Lab in Kyoto has Robovie-IV; Korea's KIST Mahru-Z; and Kokoro and UC San Diego's Diego-san. All are prominent personal robots in development and recently appearing in the news.

These personal robots are well-funded and in development to be commercialized and adapted into worldwide service before 2020, hence their importance. I'm sure I've missed one or more serious player in this market segment and would appreciate your helping me build the list of personal robots to track. Thanks very much.