This robot is very limited in its form, but it can learn pretty much everything. Californian start-up Willow Garage encourages enthusiasts to write applications for the personal robot she designed. PR2 has already learned to serve a cold beer and even play pool!
At first glance, PR2 (Personal Robot version 2) is not very slender: 200 kg for just 1.50 m high. Besides, it doesn’t have much in his head: just cameras, sensors and a laser, to find its location and better understand and where it is going.
It is in its base, a 67 cm wide base, that its essential components are housed: the electric motor, the battery and above all the networked computer that gives it life and connects it to the outside world. Underneath, eight wheels allow it to move in all directions. As soon as it comes to life, PR2 extends its two massive articulated arms, finished with rotating clamps, which give it a great and vaguely disturbing look. Each arm has its cameras and sensors hidden in the joints.
Thanks to its wireless connections, PR2 can be triggered remotely merely and intuitively using a video game controller or a classic computer, via a simple web page. Then it operates autonomously. This robot moves seamlessly to the premises where it was born, Willow Garage, a start-up company based in Menlo Park, in the heart of Silicon Valley. He knows how to get around unexpected obstacles and open doors – only by turning the handle. It has been designed to live among men, in offices, workshops, shops, houses…
When it runs out of energy, the robot can find an electrical outlet on his own, parks just in front of him, grab the power cable stored on his base and plugs it into the wall. Then he falls asleep, while he recharges his batteries.
Other than that, he can’t do anything. And that is precisely what makes it sturdy and original. Unlike industrial robots programmed once and for all, PR2 is like a child, unaware of everything, but with an immense capacity for learning. All he needs to do is to write a specific application for each activity and load it remotely, via Wi-Fi, into his onboard computer.
A succession of domestic tasks
The first tests were conclusive. In one week of intensive work, a Willow Garage team successfully programmed a PR2 to perform a succession of domestic tasks. Like serving a cold beer: it finds the refrigerator, opens it, recognizes the bottles by their label, gently grabs one, picks it up and carries it to his guest. Of course, it can be reprogrammed to identify wine bottles as well. Another team taught him how to pick up empty glasses and bottles, place them on a rolling tray and take them to the kitchen. A student at the University of Berkeley wrote a program that teaches PR2 to fold and store napkins.
Another copy of PR2 has even learned to play pool, or almost so: thanks to an articulated rod; it succeeds in winning a shot four times out of ten. More seriously, Keenan Wyrobek, one of the directors of Willow Garage, sees PR2 above all as a docile and tireless servant: “At first, everyone will want the robot to take care of what they consider the worst chores so that it will be very subjective. For example, I hate paperwork. I dream of a robot that can sort my administrative papers and invoices, store them somewhere, scan them and index them. “
To speed things up, Willow Garage has chosen to encourage robotics enthusiasts from all over the world, amateurs and professionals, to take possession of the PR2 operating system, then give free rein to their imagination to write useful, playful or artistic applications.
There will be no intellectual property problem, because Willow Garage has opted from the outset for a hybrid business model: the robot itself, made up of parts from around ten countries, is protected by patents and trade secrets, but its computer programs are open source, i. e. freely modifiable and made available free of charge to all.
Available from 2020?
From 2015, Keenan Wyrobek hopes, the successors of PR2, lighter, more skillful, will start to populate SMEs: “Employees new to robotics will be able to program their robot to perform the most demanding and repetitive tasks, which will free up time for them to devote themselves to more creative tasks.”
He is convinced that from 2020 onwards, personal robots will be installed in private homes. He already imagines an application distribution system similar to the Appstore for Apple’s iPhone: “Anyone can write an application and put it on TV