Robot capable of handling unfamiliar objects unveiled

September 11, 2014 7:32 pm

Robot capable of handling unfamiliar objects unveiled
By Clive Cookson in Birmingham

The first robot capable of manipulating unfamiliar objects was unveiled on Thursday, with its creators predicting that it would possess enough dexterity within months to carry out complex tasks such as loading a dishwasher.

“Boris” was displayed at the British Science Festival in Birmingham picking up household objects that he had not seen before, such as a dustpan and measuring cup, and putting them down in a basket.

“Our scenario is to have a robot capable of loading a dishwasher by next April,” said Professor Jeremy Wyatt, the project leader at Birmingham university.

“Loading crockery and cookware, including objects it has not seen before, into the racks of a dishwasher without dropping or breaking anything is really hard for a robot.”

Researchers taught Boris various ways of grasping things, for example through a power grip using its whole hand to curve around an object or a pinch grip between two or three fingers. The robot can apply its learning to new objects.

“It is commonplace to programme robots to pick up particular objects and move them around,” said Professor Wyatt. “But when those objects vary in size or shape robots tend to get clumsy.”

The overall aim is to improve robotic manipulation in unstructured settings such as homes, offices or factories where robots work alongside humans rather than caged off in their own spaces.

“For example a robot might need to pick up a screwdriver put down by a human co-worker in an unfamiliar place,” he said.

The Pacman project that created Boris is one of a series of robotics programmes at Birmingham university funded through large European Union grants.

Another, called Strands, is developing robots that can move around a cluttered environment for days without human intervention. The project’s star robot, Bob, has worked as a trainee nightwatchman at G4S, the security company, as the Financial Times reported last month.

A third EU-funded robotics project called Emote is focusing on robot tutors that help schoolchildren to learn geography.

“EU funding has given a huge shot in the arm to British robotics,” said Prof Wyatt.
“The UK is second only to Germany in European robotics and the benefits of the research are just beginning to feed into industry.”

The Birmingham team has just received a patent on Boris, which the university’s technology transfer company, Alta Innovations, plans to exploit. 

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014.


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