'Boris' the robot can load up dishwasher

By Michael Eyre
Science reporter, Birmingham

  • Published
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Boris could be part of a new generation of robots that would live in the everyday world

A robot unveiled today at the British Science Festival will be loading dishwashers next year, its developers claim.

"Boris" is one of the first robots in the world capable of intelligently manipulating unfamiliar objects with a humanlike grasp.

It was developed by scientists at the University of Birmingham.

The team also work with "Bob", an autonomous robot who recently completed work experience at security firm G4S.

"This is Boris' first public outing," announced Professor Jeremy Wyatt of the School of Computer Science. The robot took five years to develop at a cost of £350,000.

Boris "sees" objects with depth sensors on its face and wrists. In 10 seconds it calculates up to a thousand possible ways to grasp a novel object with its five robotic fingers and plans a path of arm movements to reach its target, avoiding obstructions.

"It's not been programmed to pick it up - it's been programmed to learn how to pick it up," explained Professor Wyatt.

Research engineer Maxine Adjigble helped build the robot. "He sees something, he has been trained to grasp an object in a particular way, and he says - okay this surface looks similar to what I know, so I can go for this grasp," he explained.

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The researchers hope their work could help make robots more flexible in future

Professor Wyatt and his collaborators in the international PacMan project hope to achieve an ambitious goal by April 2015.

"The idea is to get the robot to load your dishwasher."

"You get a bunch of objects off a table, scattered as you might have them on a kitchen surface, and the robot will look through the set of objects, find one it wants to pick up, figure out where to put it in the dishwasher, and load it," said Professor Wyatt.

Why has Boris been assigned kitchen duties? "Not because I think dishwasher-loading robots are an economical or social necessity right now," laughed Professor Wyatt.

"But it's a typical task that humans engage in - one that requires all the manipulative faculties that evolution spent hundreds of millions of years developing. So by putting that into a robot, we hope to make the robots more flexible in future."

But Boris, like humans, finds the cutlery a bit fiddly.

"Plates are nice and symmetric… I think knives and forks might be a bit hard," conceded Professor Wyatt.

Coping with uncertainty

Boris represents a third generation of robots, suggested Professor Wyatt. "The first generation was industrial robots that manipulate the world when it's very precisely controlled."

The second generation includes airborne drones, self-driving cars and other mobile robots that "can move around in our world and share it with us, even though that world is uncertain and full of novelty."

But manipulating a world shared with humans - and to perform physical tasks alongside humans - requires a new generation of robots. They will need to "cope with all the uncertainty that humans introduce into the environment," explained Professor Wyatt. "You have an unstructured world and you need technologies that can deal with that."

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Boris "sees" objects with depth sensors on its face and wrists

The team of scientists also presented a very different intelligent robot called Bob.

Where Boris is dexterous but immobile, Bob's wheels carry his 4'9" frame freely around his environment, building a precise picture of the objects and people around him using laser distance sensors.

"He integrates this into a map," explained Dr Nick Hawes, who leads the team training Bob. "A heat map showing where the obstacles are."

The most challenging obstacles are the ones that move - humans.

"If he sees you, he slows down," explained Dr Hawes. Bob also takes into account the social distance humans are comfortable with.

Bob can explore an indoor environment for up to a week without any human intervention, carrying out simple tasks and observations. "The novelty is in his level of autonomy - his ability to make decisions for himself - and his ability to do this over long periods of time," explained Dr Hawes.

Bob recently did his first work experience placement at security company G4S's office in Gloucestershire. "He was there for three weeks doing surveillance tasks."

Right hand man

Mr Adjigble discussed some of the disciplines that come together to make a robot like Boris. "Mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, software development and also control. To put it together you need to know a bit of all of these fields... this is what is really complicated."

Unexpected setbacks complicate things further. "It broke its pinkie back in June and we're still trying to fix it," said Professor Wyatt. "So it's working with a broken finger."

The team continue to improve Boris, recently adding the ability to choose the best of five different grasp types when approaching an object. "That's actually something we've just cracked, but we haven't published it yet," said Professor Wyatt.

Boris doesn't use his left arm at present, something the team are keen to introduce. "One of the really hard things to do is pick up an object and transfer it… being bimanual is a real advantage for all kinds of purposes." Boris also lacks a sense of touch. "There's a real challenge… getting the tactile sensing of sufficient quality."

The long term goal is "to build robots capable of operating in human environments - offices, hospitals, warehouses," explained Dr Hawes. Professor Wyatt was enthusiastic about achieving this in Britain. "This is great British tech that has been patented," said Professor Wyatt. "The UK is one of the leaders in the world in terms of dexterous hands."

So why the name Boris? An acronym, or homage to a certain flaxen-haired politician perhaps?

"I just liked the name," chuckled Professor Wyatt.