GWU Pet Project Means Your Dog Really, Really Wants a Robot

Students at George Washington University are teaching their PR2 to be man's best friend's best friend

2 min read
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.

[ GWU ] via [ Willow Garage ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

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A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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