Toyota Research Institute Looks to Give You a Helping Hand with Your Chores — From the Ceiling

Company's friendly robot will clean, tidy, and load your dishwasher — and probably isn't a precursor to Portal's GLaDOS.

TRI's ceiling mounted robot is a helpful chore-doer, and definitely not GLaDOS from Portal. (📷: TRI)

The Toyota Research Institute has shown off some of the technologies it is working on for home robotic automation, including a ceiling-mounted robot that evokes memories of the digital antagonist GLaDOS from the Portal game series.

Home robots — as in ambulatory, often anthropomorphised, machines which feel more like part of the family — haven't taken the world by storm, beyond occasional feelings of pride when a robotic vacuum successfully navigates the room without getting stuck under a sofa, but it's a field in which research is still ongoing. Toyota Research Institute's latest experiment is with a friendly robot designed to help with household chores — by reaching down from the ceiling.

"By travelling on the ceiling, the robot avoids the problems of navigating household floor clutter and navigating cramped spaces," the company explains of the "gantry robot." "When not in use, the robot would tuck itself up out of the way. To further investigate this idea, the team has built a laboratory prototype robot that can do all the same tasks as a floor-based mobile robot but with the innovative overhead mobility system."

The robot would, the company claims, take care of various tasks within a relatively fixed area like the kitchen — reaching down from above to load the dishwasher with dirty flatware, wipe surfaces clean, and put things back where they came from after you've mad a sandwich. To do so, it can be combined with another prototype the company has developed: a soft "bubble gripper."

TRI's soft-bubble grippers are not only gentle but provide detailed control and feedback. (📹: TRI)

"The soft grippers are made of a soft bubble that complies when it is in contact with objects or tools, and we can control that compliance by changing the pressure in the bubble," notes Russ Tedrake, TRI's vice president for robotics research. “Inside is a depth camera that senses the shape of the bubble skin, and tracks motion to estimate the shear forces on the surface.”

More details on the technologies shown off by the company at its recent virtual press event can be found on the company website; additional detail is available from IEEE Spectrum's coverage.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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