New software helps robot butler combat clutter

The new software empowered the robot to use problem-solving techniques the researchers had never taught it.
By Brooks Hays   |   May 18, 2016 at 2:14 PM

PITTSBURGH, May 18 (UPI) -- Clutter can be distracting and make it hard to get work done -- not just for humans, but for robots, too.

New software designed by engineers at Carnegie Mellon University is helping robots cut through the clutter to accomplish their tasks, whether that's navigating a messy living room or retrieving a milk jug from the back of the refrigerator.

When researchers tested their new software on their Home Exploring Robot Butler, or HERB, they found it not only aided HERB's clutter-cutting abilities, but also enhanced the robot's creative problem solving skills.

"It was exploiting sort of superhuman capabilities," Siddhartha Srinivasa, an associate professor of robotics at CMU, said in a news release. "The robot's wrist has a 270-degree range, which led to behaviors we didn't expect. Sometimes, we're blinded by our own anthropomorphism."

During problem-solving tasks, researchers observed HERB using techniques they had never taught it, like cradling an object in the crook of its metal arm.

Researchers also tested their software on NASA's KRex robot, the space agency's latest lunar rover model. The ability to avoid craters, lava flows, hills and debris is vital when traversing the surface the moon.

The software works by teaching the robot about the physics of its surroundings, so that it can understand what objects can be moved and how. The software makes the robot aware of which objects are delicate and which are unmovable.

The algorithm also helps the robot map out a strategy for navigating around obstacles. For each task, the robot uses its software to determine what combination of maneuvering and object rearranging will allow it to most efficiently cut through the clutter.

Researchers are scheduled to present their new software on Thursday to attendees of the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation, held this week in Stockholm, Sweden.

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