As much as we love the PR2, it's not a robot that anyone would likely describe as "quick." Not that it's trying to be quick or anything, but it does have a tendency towards being absurdly slow, generally because it's doing very complicated things.

However, for a robot like the PR2 to be useful in any sort of versatile industrial setting (which is slowly but surely becoming a huge market for robotics), speed, efficiency, and reliability is very important. Some talented roboticists have been working away at this problem, and they've managed to get a PR2 to pick and place (or at least, pick and drop) objects at a rate of one every seven seconds from a conveyor belt moving at over a foot per second. This is quite possibly the fastest I have ever seen a PR2 move.

For the PR2 to pull this off, it has to combine 3D object recognition, object pose estimation, collision-free arm and gripper trajectory generation, and grasping, which is a lot to do in under seven seconds. It's the grasping bit that's especially tricky, since a delay in the grasping task of just 100 milliseconds means that the object's position will have changed enough to cause the robot to miss. The grasps themselves were learned from humans, with a user teaching the robot a set of several workable ways to pick up each object, while arm movements were planned using the CMU's SBPL (Search Based Planning Library).

Overall, the robot managed a success rate of 87 percent at picking objects off of the conveyor, which is really quite good, considering that (as far as the hardware goes) it's not optimized for this sort of work. Better grippers would have helped, and the primary constraint on the speed of the pick and place was that the PR2's arms just can't move any faster.

Now, if this all reminds you of a certain other two-armed factory robot, well, yeah. It's not like PR2 is going to be stealing jobs from Baxter anytime soon, but teaching mobile manipulation platforms to robustly perform tasks like this may eventually lead to more robots like Baxter doing all kinds of work all over the place. Plus, both robots rely on ROS, so maybe they can even learn something from each other.

"Perception and Motion Planning for Pick-and-Place of Dynamic Objects," by Anthony Cowley, Benjamin Cohen, William Marshall, Camillo J. Taylor, and Maxim Likhachev from UPenn's GRASP Lab, Lehigh University, and CMU, has been submitted to IROS 2013. For the record, Anthony Cowley and Benjamin Cohen are two of the guys behind the (now legendary) POOP SCOOP demo. No word on how much overlap there is between the two, but we have to assume that they've at least cleaned PR2's grippers since then.

[ GRASP Lab ]

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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
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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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