I, Roboticist

I wanted a robot butler, so I built one

5 min read

Since their earliest days, robots have been hopefully imagined as charming domestic servants, cheerfully serving beer or cocktails to their human masters [see photo, "Then..."]. Twenty-three years ago, Heathkit Co. released the first real attempt to deliver on that dream: its Hero line of home robots. Not surprisingly, their 8-bit processors, minimal onboard memory, and limited ability to sense their surroundings meant that humanity still found itself getting up and going to the fridge whenever it wanted a cold one.

But in the past few years, a new genus of home robots is making the dream seem less fanciful. Entertainment bots like the endearing Sony AIBO pet dog, floor-cleaning automatons like iRobot Corp.'s Roomba, and general-purpose home robots like the US $1200 PC-Bot, from White Box Robotics Inc., often have enough processing power to execute interesting programs, such as voice recognition or vision-based navigation. They also have enough payload capacity to carry useful attachments such as personal sound systems and gripper arms, rather than just a cup of your favorite beverage.

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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