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Leave Your Chores to a Robot

Development of Housekeeping Robots Accelerates


The Home Assistant Robot. ©IRT Research Initiative, The University of Tokyo

Researchers at the University of Tokyo are integrating information technology and robotics to develop robots that can perform household chores. Their work on the Information and Robot Technology Research Initiative, or IRT, has already resulted in public demonstrations by some housekeeping robots. One such demonstration featured the Home Assistant Robot, developed in collaboration with seven private sector firms, including Toyota Motor Corp. and Olympus. In another demonstration, IRT's Kitchen Robot, developed together with Panasonic, showed off its ability to load dishes into a dishwasher.

The Home Assistant Robot

The Home Assistant Robot is 155 centimeters tall and has a humanoid appearance. It moves about on two wheels, has three fingers on each hand, and has several cameras on its head that allow it to recognize the objects in front of it. The robot's most remarkable features are its ability to grasp soft objects and its capacity to reattempt tasks that it has failed to perform correctly.

At its public demonstration the robot performed such tasks as operating a washing machine and mopping the floor. First off, it picked up a tray of dishes and carried them from the dining table to the kitchen sink. Then it demonstrated its ability to use a washing machine by grasping a shirt hanging over the back of a chair and taking over to the washer. At that point, however, it was unable to pinpoint the location of the button to open the washer's lid. It did not give up, though; it retreated momentarily and made two or three further attempts before succeeding in opening the lid. When mopping the floor, meanwhile, the robot deftly moved a dining room chair with its right hand while using its left to mop under the table. Thereafter it resumed using both its hands to mop the areas free of furniture.

The Kitchen Robot

IRT's Kitchen Robot is shaped like a hinged desk lamp; instead of a light, though, at the tip is an appendage with two parts that open and close like a crocodile's mouth, enabling it to grasp objects. Handling delicate objects like dishes calls for an accurate sense of the object's center of gravity and the application of just the right amount of pressure - not too weak, not too strong.


The Kitchen Robot. ©IRT Research Initiative, The University of Tokyo

To make this possible, multiple sensors were built into the robot's gripping appendage, and the surface of the mechanism was constructed of soft nylon resin and silicon rubber. In demonstrations, the robot used its hand to grasp each bowl, plate, or glass carefully by its rim, rinse it two or three times, and empty any remaining water before placing it in the nearby dishwasher. It was especially careful when loading the dishes; for example, the robot would pause if a dish came into contact with a partition inside the dishwasher. After successfully loading three dishes, the robot closed the washer and pushed the switch to turn it on.

In addition to these two robots, IRT is also working to develop household robots to assist the elderly and the disabled. For example, its Personal Mobility Robot provides a single, seated user with the means to move about, and its Monitor Robot keeps an eye on users' movements and issues an alert if it notices something unusual. (March 2009)