Why Software Could Hold the Key to Tea and Coffee Breaks of the Future

Industrial Robot

ISSN: 0143-991x

Article publication date: 18 October 2011



(2011), "Why Software Could Hold the Key to Tea and Coffee Breaks of the Future", Industrial Robot, Vol. 38 No. 6. https://doi.org/10.1108/ir.2011.04938faa.004



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Why Software Could Hold the Key to Tea and Coffee Breaks of the Future

Article Type: News From: Industrial Robot: An International Journal, Volume 38, Issue 6

When you really think about it, making a standard cup of tea or coffee is surprisingly complex. This seemingly unexceptional challenge has been exercising the mighty brains of robotics experts for the last twenty years.

One such is Dr Michael Suppa, head of Department of Perception and Cognition at the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR). The interdisciplinary team of mechanical and electrical engineers as well as software developers have been working on “Rollin’ Justin” for two decades (Figure 1). “Looking back, the lightweight robotic arms, the robotic hands, even the stereo vision system and the mobile base, were all relatively straight forward to put together. Now, almost all our research is about software, so that Justin can bring its perception into play in a dynamic environment and deal with change. It must be able to assess risk and decide what to do next by using his sensory system to validate data. This is why we’ve set it the tea and coffee making challenge. Currently, it is being programmed to follow a set series of tasks to make those drinks, yet we are challenging it to make the drinks in much the same way you or I would.”

 Figure 1 “Rollin’ Justin carrying a tray

Figure 1 “Rollin’ Justin carrying a tray

The first thing Justin must do is interpret the objects he can see with its stereo camera system and understand their significance to the task. Here Dr Suppa is working with researchers across Europe to further develop Justin’s abilities. Dr Andrew Davison at Imperial College, London is co-operating with DLR’s researchers in the sphere of navigation. “Once the robot starts moving and the scene is updated, the map he builds just gets better and better, but it is very complicated and very graphics card processing power hungry”, says Dr Davison.

Dr Suppa concurs: “Once we made Justin mobile, it got a whole lot more complicated and we had to go back the drawing board, algorithm-wise. We are constantly challenging Justin and making its life a little bit harder. First, it had to find the objects required to make iced tea and understand which tasks to do in what order. Just to be really mean, we introduced transparent mugs, which flummoxed him for a while. Then we introduced a filter coffee machine and he had to use his sensors to realise how much to push. We just keep introducing more and more variants and making our scenario more complicated as a result.”

Even when Justin knows what objects he is working with and what it should be doing with them, it still has to decide where to grip the object and how tightly. The sensors in his fingers allow him to make little adjustments as his initial touch turns into a grip. As research partner, Dr Jeremy Wyatt at University of Birmingham explains, “we aren’t as visually guided as you might imagine. Trivial tasks are hard. Humans are very good at estimating the weight of an object before they interact with it, so they can answer the question, “how will this object move if I apply these forces?” Bit by bit, Justin is using learning as a predictor to both mass and the forces he needs to apply over distance. The ultimate would be a physics engine that mimics the real world, something all the scientists working on his development aspire to. Although the complexity is still mind numbing for this goal to be achieved, computer processing power has progressed so rapidly, it is now a goal that is seen to be achievable. Anyone fancy a cup of tea?

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