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HERB the Robot Uses "Spinning Lasers" to Help You Around the Kitchen

Ready to serve you . . . coffee.
Ready to serve you . . . coffee.

HERB, the Home Exploring Robot Butler, is here to help. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Personal Robotics Lab created him to develop the technologies necessary to make Rosie the Robot a reality. Here's a video of HERB being introduced by the lab's founder, professor Siddhartha Srinivasa:

We talked by phone with Srinivasa yesterday to find out more about HERB.

How HERB Helps: Srinivasa says that his overall motivation is to move robotics out of the factory and into our homes. HERB is a step along that path, a test bed for the new hardware and software necessary to make that a reality. The goal of this research is to create robot assistants that could help the elderly and disabled. Srinivasa says that you and I might not need a robot that takes five minutes to get a beer but somebody who needs help picking their glasses off the ground would find him invaluable. Robots like HERB will one day be able to prepare meals, tidy up the house and perhaps even tend to our pets needs.

There are serious challenges, though. Unlike a tightly controlled factory floor, a home is a chaotic place for a robot to operate in. Things and people are constantly moving around and a robot that relied upon knowing exactly where everything is would be useless. What's more, being unable sense that people were moving around could actually make it dangerous. Nobody wants to take a manipulator to the face because they asked HERB to get something off the counter.

To address these issues, the researchers have not only made him smarter but also more aware of his surroundings. HERB "sees" using a combination of digital camera, Microsoft Kinect and a "spinning laser." Srinivasa says that the Kinect is excellent for tracking quickly moving objects but that the laser, which is able to take thousands of measurements a second, gives him much finer detail on his surrounding. This detail allows HERB to build a 3D map of his environment and recognize what things are. Having a robot that can tell the difference between a potato and a person has obvious advantages.

Perhaps more importantly, HERB can feel. He won't cry during the first 15 minutes of Up, but he is able to tell if you're pushing on his manipulator arm. Srinivasa says HERB is equipped with both tactile and force sensors. Tactile sensors act like skin for a robot, telling them if their outer surfaces are coming in contact with something. At the same time, force sensors can tell how much and from what direction pressure is being applied. In our "manipulator arm to the face" example above, the actual HERB would immediately sense he had collided with you and retract his arm rather than continuing to reach for the cereal.

Learning has a curve One of the truly exciting elements of HERB is his ability to learn and remember. Srinivasa said that HERB learns two ways.

First, he learns like a person, by doing things and remember the outcomes. The first time HERB picks up a glass he might need to do it slowly and not particularly gracefully. But as he picks up more glasses his programming can refine itself to be more efficient at picking up glasses.

Secondly, HERB learns by watching. Sort of. HERB isn't bright enough to watch you do something and make the connection but researchers in the lab can use a Kinect (like the one mounted on his head) to record themselves performing actions, like opening a door. HERB can then "look" at that information and figure out how to mimic it.

 

This all leads to a robot that is not only capable of performing activities in the house but actually getting better at doing them. More importantly, this leads to a robot that can learn to interact with things it has never seen before. Practically, this means you can buy a jug of milk instead of a carton and HERB won't (hopefully) stall out in front of the fridge when he goes to make you tea.

Okay, I'm sold, when do I get my robotic butler and does a monocle come standard? Unfortunately, Srinivasa says that a widely available, commercial version of HERB is 10 to 15 years away. Luckily, the technologies that HERB is pioneering will probably start showing up in our homes and kitchens long before then. HERB's tactile and force sensors will undoubtedly help to make common appliances safer, while his object recognition algorithms might help your fridge recognize that you're out of milk or that the door is ajar.

Robot Dating Tip: In case there are any eligible single robots out there, we have to point out that HERB has a Facebook page in addition to his advanced algorithms and sensor suite he also overcame some serious personal problems to get to where he's at. In fact, here is a video of him explaining how hard he has worked to come this far:

I don't know about you but it's hard not to love a robot whose personal interests include, "Grasping, Pushing, Object recognition, Planning, Put-ing."

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