Willow Garage Giving Away 11 PR2 Robots Worth Over $4 Million

UC Berkeley researchers demonstrated a PR2 robot that could fold towels. Image: UC Berkeley

Watch out, towels of the world, more PR2 robots are coming for you.

Willow Garage, the Silicon Valley company dedicated to advancing open robotics, is announcing this morning that it will award 11 PR2 robots to institutions and universities around the world as part of its efforts to speed-up research and development in personal robotics.

The company, in Menlo Park, Calif., hopes that the 11 organizations [see list below] in the United States, Europe, and Japan that are receiving PR2 robots at no cost—a total worth over US $4 million—will use the robots to explore new applications and contribute back to the open-source robotics community.

An open robot platform design and built by Willow, the Personal Robot 2, or PR2, has a mobile base, two arms, a variety of sensors, and 16 CPU cores for computation. But what makes the robot stand out is its software: the open-source Robot Operating System, or ROS, that offers full control of the PR2, including libraries for navigation, manipulation, and perception.

Yesterday I spoke with Eric Berger, Willow's co-director of the personal robotics platform program, who said they’re "really excited about the new applications that will come out of this."

As an example of the possibilities, he mentioned that earlier this year a group at UC Berkeley programmed a PR2 to fold towels. The video of the robot neatly folding a stack of towels went viral.

"People get very excited with the idea of robots doing something that's really useful in their homes," Berger says. "People have seen a lot of military robots, industrial robots, robot vacuum cleaners, but the idea of something like Rosie the Robot, I think it's very powerful."

With its PR2 Beta Program, Willow Garage hopes to foster scientific robotics research, promote the development of new tools to improve the PR2 and other robots, and also help researchers create practical demonstrations and applications of personal robotics.

For the researchers receiving a state-of-the-art personal robot platform worth several hundred thousand dollars, the possibility of working on real-world problems without having to waste time reinventing the robotic wheel, so to speak, is a big deal.

Even more significant, the researchers will be able to "share their software for use by other groups and build on top of each other's work," says Pieter Abbeel, the UC Berkeley professor who created the towel folding demo and is one of the PR2 recipients. "This will significantly boost the rate of progress in robotics, and personal robotics in particular."

"Just as the Mac and PC hardware inspired new applications for personal computers in the 1980s, the PR2 could be the key step in making personal robots a reality," says Ken Goldberg, an IEEE Fellow and UC Berkeley professor. "It's a very exciting step forward for robotics and we're very excited to participate."

willow garage pr2
The PR2 robot is an advanced mobile and manipulation platform. Image: Willow Garage

Eric Berger told me that one of the PR2 Beta Program's main goals -- and of Willow itself -- is improving the software side of robotics. Today a lot of research groups write their own code, wasting time creating tools that already exist. Willow aims to address that with its ROS, an open-source framework that robotic developers can use and share.

“I think there’s definitely hardware problems to solve, but a lot of the biggest problems that we’re facing right now have to do with software and applications," Berger says. "That's what we're trying to enable with this [program]."

Berger compares the evolution of robotics to that of computers. Robotics is going from something designed to solve a specific problem to something that is a general-purpose system, he says.

"Once robots have reached a certain level of capability, then it's a question of what do you make them do."

Willow says the ROS software is BSD-licensed, making it completely free for anyone to use and change, and free for companies to commercialize on. The company hopes advances in personal robotics could have an impact in a wide range of industries, including retail, health care, home care, automotive, and manufacturing.

Willow had announced the PR2 Beta Program early this year, inviting research groups to submit proposals showing how they'd use a PR2. Willow received 78 proposals from all over the world and selected 10—adding an 11th recipient at the last minute. The selected proposals include three in Europe and one in Japan.

In selecting the 11 PR2 recipients, Berger said they wanted diversity in terms of applications, but at the same time they focused on those that could make the best use of PR2's mobility and manipulation capabilities. The selected institutions will pursue their research and development goals and regularly meet to share their progress and explore new applications together.

Here's the list of lucky 11 PR2 recipients that Willow is releasing this morning:

* Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg with the proposal TidyUpRobot
The University of Freiburg's strength in mapping has led to multiple open-source libraries in wide use. Their group will program the PR2 to do tidy-up tasks like clearing a table, while working on difficult underlying capabilities, like understanding how drawers and refrigerators open, how to recognize different types of objects, and how to integrate this information with the robot's map. Their goal is to detect, grasp, and put away objects with very high reliability, and reproduce these results at other PR2 Beta Program sites.

* Bosch with the proposal Developing the Personal Robotics Market: Enabling New Applications Through Novel Sensors and Shared Autonomy
Bosch will bring their expertise in manufacturing, sensing technologies and consumer products. Bosch will be making robotic sensors available to members of the PR2 Beta Program, including a limited number of "skins" that will give the PR2 the ability to feel its environment. Bosch will also make their PR2 remotely accessible and will expand on the libraries they've released for ROS.

* Georgia Institute of Technology with the proposal Assistive Mobile Manipulation for Older Adults at Home
The Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech will be placing the PR2 in an "Aware Home" to study how robots can help with homecare and creative assistive capabilities for older adults. Their research includes creating easier ways for adults to interact with robots, and enabling robots to interact with everyday objects like drawers, lamps, and light switches. Their human-robot interaction focus will help ensure that the software development is closely connected to real-world needs.

* Katholieke Universiteit Leuven with the proposal Unified Framework for Task Specification, Control and Coordination for Mobile Manipulation
KU Leuven in Belgium is a key player in the open-source robotics community. As one of the founding institutions for the Orocos Project, they will be improving the tools and libraries used to program robots in ROS, by, for example, integrating ROS with Blender. They will also be working on getting the PR2 and people to perform tasks together, like carrying objects through a crowded environment.

* MIT CSAIL with the proposal Mobile Manipulation in Human-Centered Environments
The diverse MIT CSAIL group will use the PR2 to study the key capabilities needed by robots that operate in human-centered environments, such as safe navigation, interaction with humans via natural language, object recognition, and planning for complex goals. Their work will allow robots to build the maps they need in order to move around in buildings as large as MIT’s 11-story Stata Center. They will also program the PR2 to put away groceries and do simple cleaning tasks.

* Stanford University with the proposal STAIR on PR2
PR1 was developed in Kenneth Salisbury's lab at Stanford, and ROS was developed from the STAIR (Stanford AI Robot) Project. We're very excited that the PR2 will become the new platform for the STAIR Project's innovative research. Their team will work on several applications, which include taking inventory, retrieving items scattered about a building, and clearing a table after a meal.

* Technische Universität München with the proposal CRAM: Cognitive Robot Abstract Machine
TUM will research giving the PR2 the artificial intelligence skills and 3D perception to reason about what it is doing while it performs various kitchen tasks. These combined improvements will help the PR2 perform more complicated tasks like setting a table, emptying a dishwasher, preparing meals, and other kitchen-related tasks.

* University of California, Berkeley with the proposal PR2 Beta Program: A Platform for Personal Robotics
The PR2 is now known as the "Towel-Folding Robot", thanks to the impressive efforts of Pieter Abbeel's lab at Berkeley. In two short months, they were able to get the PR2 to fold fifty towels in a row. Berkeley will tackle the much more difficult challenge of doing laundry, from dirty laundry piles to neatly folded clothes. In addition, their team is interested in hierarchical planning, object recognition, and assembly and manufacturing tasks (e.g. IKEA products) through learning by demonstration

* University of Pennsylvania with the proposal PR2GRASP: From Perception and Reasoning to Grasping
The GRASP Lab proposal aims to tackle some of the challenges facing household robotics. These challenges include tracking people and planning for navigation in dynamic environments, and transferring handheld objects between robots and humans. Their contributions will include giving PR2 a tool belt to change its gripper on the fly, helping it track and navigate around people, and performing difficult two-arm tasks like opening spring-loaded doors.

* University of Southern California with the proposal Persistent and Persuasive Personal Robots (P^3R): Towards Networked, Mobile, Assistive Robotics
USC has already demonstrated teaching the PR2 basic motor skills so that it can adapt to different situations and tasks, such as pouring a cup. They will continue to expand on this work in imitation learning and building and refining skill libraries, while also doing research in human-robot interaction and self-calibration for sensors.

* University of Tokyo, Jouhou System Kougaku (JSK) Laboratory with the proposal Autonomous Motion Planning for Daily Tasks in Human Environments using Collaborating Robots
The JSK Laboratory at the University of Tokyo is one of the top humanoid robotics labs in the world. Their goal is to see robots safely and autonomously perform daily, human-like tasks such as retrieving objects and cleaning up domestic environments. They'll also be working on getting the PR2 to work together with other robots, as well as integrating the ROS, EusLisp, and OpenRAVE frameworks.

And here's a video describing the PR2 Beta Program:

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