Making robots cheaper, more capable, and safer at Bosch

Bosch is unique among PR2 Beta Program recipients in that it’s not a big university with a well-established robotics research program. Rather, Bosch is best known for making everything from automotive parts to power tools to home appliances, including the washer and dryer that UC Berkeley is using to teach its PR2 to do laundry. So how did Bosch end up as part of the PR2 Beta Program? Engineer Benjamin Pitzer explains that as an industrial research lab, Bosch is able to “offer something that other people can’t.” Instead of just teaching its PR2 to do clever things, Bosch is helping the robotics community work towards the long-term, big picture for commercial household robotics: namely, figuring out what it’s going to take to get a PR2-like robot into your house.

To make this fantasy happen for real, Bosch is working on ways of making robots safer, more capable, and more affordable, and its PR2 Remote Lab tackles all of these issues at the same time. Bosch is building this Remote Lab together with Brown University, which recently purchased a PR2 of its own. The idea behind the Remote Lab is to develop a framework that allows a PR2 to be controlled over the Internet, providing a browser-based infrastructure that includes sensor feedback, 3D models, and camera streams. Before you get any ideas, though, Bosch says that there are safeguards in place to prevent you from remotely driving its PR2 (named Alan) out the door and causing some serious mayhem.

The Remote Lab enables human-in-the-loop control of a robot, where a person can jump in and take over for an otherwise autonomous robot if it encounters a particularly tricky or dangerous task. This makes robots both more capable and cheaper -- instead of having to design a robot that’s 100% autonomous, you can instead build one that’s 90% autonomous (which is much easier to do), and just have a human remotely take care of the other 10% when necessary.

Like UC Berkeley, Bosch has also been teaching its PR2 to fold clothes. Unlike UC Berkeley, Bosch has taken a different approach to folding by cutting out the whole perception problem that Berkeley has been focusing on. Instead, its working on the next step beyond perception: determining good overall policies for folding and unfolding clothes that the robot may not be already familiar with. This is part of the point of the PR2 Beta Program specifically, and ROS in general: different sites can explore different aspects of the same problem, and then combine their progress to solve complex problems (like folding) much, much faster.

Another demonstration that Bosch has been working on is the product of a hackathon, where the entire engineering team focused on one single problem over the course of a week. During this week, they taught their PR2 to use a Dremel tool (made by Bosch, of course) to carve pictures and text into a plank of wood. Bosch has developed a special controller that uses sensor feedback to give the PR2’s arms more precise motions, and it hopes that cheap sensors will enable the next generation of less expensive, more capable robot arms.

Bosch’s ultimate vision is to develop a generalized household robot that’s affordable by just about everyone. Technologies like the Remote Lab and inexpensive sensors will allow for an affordable, capable, Rosie-style household robot, and when you buy one in the not-too-distant future, there’s a good chance it’s going to be from Bosch.