GWU Pet Project Means Your Dog Really, Really Wants a Robot
Teaching robots to S.C.O.O.P. P.O.O.P. is fine for humans with dogs, but the dogs themselves couldn't care less what happens to their, uh, leavings. What dogs do care about is going for walks, playing fetch, and getting fed, and in an effort to appeal to the canine user demographic, students at George Washington University are hard at work teaching their PR2 robot to be your dog's new best friend.
GWU, in Washington, D.C., offers a course called Autonomous Robotics, where students learn how to program robots to perform occupational tasks. First they get everything working in simulation, and then they move on to a real live robot. This semester, most of the students in the course chose to work on pet-related tasks, including taking a dog for a walk, playing fetch with a dog, and bringing a dog food. No cat people at GWU, I guess.
As with just about everything in robotics, these tasks sound simple, but are actually fairly complicated. Let's start with dog walking: Anyone with a dog will tell you that taking the dog for a walk usually means holding onto a leash while the dog runs around doing its own thing. But if you're trying to get a robot to do the job, you have to treat the dog as an obstacle to be avoided (as robots tend to do to keep from colliding and "crushing hu-mans"). As a result, getting a robot to manage a leashed animal ended up being more about the dog walking the robot than vice versa.
The challenge behind the dog food delivery scenario is teaching a robot to transport an object with a potentially unstable center of mass, like a big bag of dog food that is full of kibbles n' bits that shift around as the robot moves. The simplest version of this system might be a box with a heavy ball inside it: the robot has to be able to compensate for the fact that the ball rolls around. The cool thing about this project is that it's adaptable to much more than dog food; moving unstable objects is one of those things that robots are going to have to be able to do reliably in order to be useful around the house, whether it's bringing your K-9 some chow or serving breakfast in bed like in my future robot fantasies.
But, back to the pet-related tasks... My advice? Just retrofit PR2 with an automatic tennis ball launcher and call it a day.