Jan 062011
Illustration of the PR2 robot
Image via Wikipedia

A standardized robotics kit promises to advance the field in ways not previously possible, making robot assistants, especially for elder care, more affordable

What does 2011 hold for the field of robotics? Plenty, if 2010 is any indication. This will not be the year that mobile, artificially intelligent robot nurses assume the responsibility of caring for the world’s growing elderly population, but it does promise to be a pivotal time for the development of the underlying technology that will enable safe and reliable automated elder care, not to mention other services that robots are expected to perform in the coming decade.

Thanks to a standardized platform introduced in 2010, roboticists can now collaborate as never before. Last May, Willow Garage, a Menlo Park, Calif., maker of robot hardware and software, released a test version of its personal robot platform. The PR2 includes a mobile base, two arms for manipulation, a suite of sensors and two computers, each with eight processing cores, 24 gigabytes of RAM and two terabytes of hard-disk space. The out-of-the-box robot, which costs $400,000, also features an operating system that handles the robot’s computation and hardware manipulation functions.

“There are a lot of innovations in the PR2, but the most significant thing from my perspective is that it is a standardized, well-designed, well-tested platform that has a whole bunch of software that works right out of the box,” says Charles Kemp, an assistant biomedical engineering professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. “You never had that situation before.”

Kemp and his team at Georgia Tech’s Healthcare Robotics Lab, which he formed in 2007, are focused on creating robots that can safely and effectively help care for senior citizens. The machines would go beyond current efforts to create bots able to follow the elderly around their homes to provide them with Internet access and remind them to take their medicine. For starters, the Healthcare Robotics Lab researchers want their robots to be able to open doors and drawers to retrieve objects such as pill bottles while being guided by a laser pointer, radio signals or touch.

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