Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Project Blue

Wired reports: [edited]

Research on robots has been hamstrung by extravagant costs — the popular research robot PR2, a pair of arms not dissimilar from Blue, will set a lab back $400,000. Blue’s reliance on 3D-printed components puts its price tag much lower, at just $3,000 in materials per arm, and the goal is to get the total cost, with manufacturing at scale, to $5,000 per arm.

Historically, if you wanted to operate a robot arm, you had to keep humans far, far away, lest the machine fling them across the room. That’s why industrial robots have been kept in cages. But robots have been getting a lot better at sensing their world, in particular reacting to human contact by stopping before they hurt us. This has led to a boom in collaborative robotics, where humans work right alongside machines.

Blue, on the other hand, isn’t particularly sensitive to human touch. The arms give way a bit instead of shutting down. This is because the robot’s relatively cheap motors are 'backdrivable', meaning a human can grab the arms and move them around even when the machine is powered off.

“This robot is designed on the assumption that in the future, robots will be controlled much more intelligently by AI systems that use visual and force feedback, much like how humans control their own arms,” says UC Berkeley's Pieter Abbeel, a robotics researcher who's overseeing the project.

Say you want Blue to learn to fold a towel. For a sensitive collaborative robot, that is a tough task, because bumping into the surface of the table might trigger it to stop. But Blue can put force on the table when reaching for the towel without freaking out.

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