OSHbot Will Save You From Having to Ask for Help in a Hardware Store

Who wants to talk to another human anyway?

2 min read
OSHbot Will Save You From Having to Ask for Help in a Hardware Store
Photo: Fellow Robots

When we first heard about Fellow Robots, back in 2012, they were called 9th Sense Robotics, and they were working on a couple of consumer telepresence platforms called Telo and Helo. Sometime in 2013, 9th Sense became Fellow Robots, and now we know what they’ve been up to: in partnership with Lowe’s Innovation Labs (that’s Lowe’s as in Lowe’s the home improvement store), Fellow is introducing a customer assistance robot.

OSHbot (a reference to Orchard Supply Hardware, a subsidiary of Lowe’s) will be making its first autonomous appearance at OSH stores in San Jose, Calif., just in time for the holidays. The robot has enough sensors and hardware onboard to make it completely autonomous, and it doesn’t require the store to add any infrastructure.

 OSHbot is great for those of us who are afraid of interacting with other humans, and instead prefer the option of having what is probably a very expensive robot to talk to instead. 

The ability to hold up a part like that, and have the robot immediately recognize it, it’s potentially pretty awesome, although I have an inherent distrust of videos like these that show near-instant visual recognition. This is especially true when the robot is recognizing a small, reflective object that is only slightly different from a huge number of other objects that look exactly like it: can it really tell that it’s looking at a standard thread screw as opposed to metric? Hmm...

Similarly, the video makes the navigation look very brisk, which I’m sure it is, when you’ve got clutter-free aisles in a nearly empy store. But what about during the holiday season, when everyone is buying last-minute gifts like bolt cutters and fire extinguishers and reciprocating saws? Will people be willing to follow this robot all the way to aisle 42 as it politely (and slowly) attempts to avoid running over shopper after shopper?

I don’t mean to be pessimistic; I’m excited that we’re starting to see big companies taking tangible steps towards useful, autonomous robots designed to operate in environments with humans. However, I’m also enough of a realist (and I’ve spent enough time with robots) not to get my hopes up for what gets shown in a PR video. The real world is extraordinarily difficult for autonomous robots to handle, even if it’s only as real as the interior of a hardware store. 

As always, we’ll see how it goes, and we may even swing by OSH to check out OSHbot for ourselves. Meanwhile it’s also worth mentioning that Fellow Robots appears to be positioning their hardware as a platform that’s not unique to Lowe’s, so it’s possible that OSHbot will show up in other retail environments as well.

[ Fellow Robots ]

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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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