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Household robots are moving from science fiction to reality

Willow Garage's PR2 robot can fold clothes, set a table and bake cookies. It costs too much and does too little to interest consumers, but researchers are rapidly developing technology to make it more useful and less expensive.

September 29, 2011|By Troy Wolverton
  • Willow Garage's PR2 robot demonstrates its ability to load a dishwasher in the test kitchen at the company's Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.
Willow Garage's PR2 robot demonstrates its ability to load a dishwasher… (Patrick Tehan, San Jose…)

Reporting from San Jose — Rosie the Robot could finally be coming to your home.

Willow Garage, a start-up in Menlo Park, Calif., has designed a robot called the PR2 that bears some resemblance to "The Jetsons'" beloved Rosie. It's still under development, but already the PR2 can fold clothes, fetch a drink from the fridge, set the table and even bake cookies.

The robot's backers aren't ready to say just how soon the PR2 will hit the mainstream market. Right now it costs too much, does too little and is too slow to be of interest to most consumers. But to many experts, the idea of a skilled and intelligent household robot finally is drawing near.

"The technology is much closer than most people think," said Andrew Ng, an associate professor of computer science at Stanford University. "We're not yet there, but I think that in less than a decade the technology will exist to have a useful household robot."

Willow Garage, founded four years ago by Scott Hassan, a software developer who previously created the company that became Yahoo Groups, is a for-profit institution with the goal of speeding up development of such robots. Its investors, whom Willow Garage declines to reveal, evaluate the company on how well it's succeeding at its mission.

Instead of tallying profits, they look at how quickly developers are adding code to ROS, the operating system underneath the PR2; how many developers and institutions are using that code in their robots; and whether the work done with the robots or ROS is winning industry awards.

"We're trying to build a personal robotics industry," Willow Garage Chief Executive Steve Cousins said. "We want to serve as a catalyst."

Willow Garage operates on the premise that a primary impediment to progress in robotics has been the lack of standards. Each time a company or research institution has had an idea for a new robotic feature or task, it usually has started from scratch, building its own unique hardware and software to test it out. Because the hardware and software weren't compatible with those developed by other researchers, experiments generally couldn't be duplicated and the scientists had a difficult if not impossible time building on work done by others.

Willow Garage's answer was to develop a robot with plenty of technical capabilities built on top of an open-source operating system that it would distribute widely within the robotics research community. Last year the company gave away 11 PR2s to top university and corporate-based robotics labs. It has since sold 13 other PR2s to similar organizations.

The assumption is that if robotics researchers at different institutions all use the same basic platform, they could stop reinventing the wheel and share results, code and insights. The idea was to turn the robot into something like a personal computer or smartphone, where people could start focusing on building programs or apps, rather than the robot itself.

So far those robotic apps have been impressive. A team at UC Berkeley has programmed its PR2 to sort and fold laundry. A team at Willow Garage programmed a PR2 to play pool, sinking shot after shot. And a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology programmed its PR2 to mix up some dough from raw ingredients and bake cookies in a toaster oven.

But researchers are taking the underlying code well beyond the PR2. There are now some 3,100 "packages" of code that have been added to ROS, up from fewer than 1,300 a year ago, according to Willow Garage. And the vast majority of those packages were developed not for the PR2 but for robots such as four-rotor flying vehicles and autonomous cars.

Many companies that in the past dismissed research on robotics as too expensive are now taking a look at what can be done with ROS and inexpensive, off-the-shelf robotics components, said Hyoun Park, a research analyst at the Aberdeen Group. Such experimentation "could really change the way we think of robotics," Park said.

Analysts such as Park see a wide variety of potential applications for self-guided customizable robots such as the PR2 and its potential successors. A real-life Rosie is an obvious one, but may still be a ways off. In the nearer term, personal robots may take on roles in small businesses and warehouses doing repetitive tasks or as mobile security guards.

One area that may have a lot of potential for PR2's successors is in-home healthcare for the elderly or the disabled, said Richard Doherty, research director with the Envisioneering Group. With an aging population in the U.S., Western Europe and Japan, there's a growing need for nurses who can monitor and assist patients. But there's a shortage of visiting home nurses, Doherty said.

Before robots become widely employed, their cost must come down. The original, two-armed PR2 retails at $400,000. Willow Garage has attempted to reduce the price by offering a robot with just one arm, but that model still costs $285,000. The company offers both robots at a discount to researchers who contribute code to ROS, but even then the lowest-priced PR2 costs about $200,000.

Wolverton writes for the San Jose Mercury News/McClatchy.

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