Opening Doors on the Way to a Personal Robot

By JOHN MARKOFF (New York Times)

Consider it one small step — or a roll, actually — for a robot, one not giant, but significant step for robotics.

Ken Conley/Willow Garage
POWERING UP A prototype of Willow Garage’s PR2 robot recharging itself at the company’s headquarters.

Willow Garage, a Silicon Valley robotics research group, said that its experimental PR2 robot, which has wheels and can travel at speeds up to a mile and a quarter per hour, was able to open and pass through 10 doors and plug itself into 10 standard wall sockets in less than an hour. In a different test, the same robot completed a marathon in the company’s office, traveling 26.2 miles. PR2 will not compete with humans yet; it took more than four days.

For the person who wants to buy a fully functioning robot butler, this may not seem so impressive. But for roboticists and a new generation of technologists in Silicon Valley, this is a significant achievement, a step along the way to the personal robot industry.

Willow Garage was founded by Scott Hassan, one of the designers of the original Google search engine. The company’s name is a reference to a small garage on Willow Road in Menlo Park, Calif., which was Google’s first office. The company is trying to develop a new generation of robotic personal assistants. Roboticists here and at other companies envision creating something on the scale of the personal computer industry, with mechanical personal assistants taking over a lot of drudgery, from cleaning up to fetching a beer from the refrigerator.

This is not a new hope, nor is it the first time that robots have tried to open doors, navigate rooms and recharge themselves. The Beast, a robot built at Johns Hopkins University in the mid-1960s, was able to locate standard wall sockets to refuel. And devices like the inexpensive iRobot Roomba vacuum cleaner can locate and dock with a specially designed charging station.

But roboticists said that the Willow Garage robot was the first to integrate the ability to do a number of operations in a real-world environment.

Personal Robot

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