Student Interest

Toyota’s Robot Butler

People in the world are rapidly aging. In fact, people 65 and over are now the fastest-growing age group. This will generate multiple obstacles for communities as they struggle to find an adequate way to take care of seniors. This is the reason why Toyota’s robotics sector is focused on developing automated assistants for the home, keeping seniors healthy and happy. This week, Toyota showcased some of the prototypes it’s testing at in-home settings built in its labs in California. These include a “gantry robot” that hangs from the roof and can achieve tasks like cleaning and loading the dishwasher. Toyota states the robot’s design was inspired by trips to Japanese homes, where researchers determined that confined floor space would significantly diminish a robot’s ability to help. To solve this dilemma, they designed a future home with robots directly integrated into the architecture. Building new robot-assisted homes from scratch would formulate its own set of problems, but the idea solves some concerns. Nonetheless, as Dan Helmick, co-lead of robotics fleet learning at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI), stated, “What if instead of needing a robot to navigate the cluttered floor, it could travel on the ceiling instead, and be tucked out of the way when it’s not needed?”

Toyota Research Institute | Innovating the Future of Mobility

Besides the gantry robot, TRI also promoted a “soft bubble gripper” that employs air-filled cushions to reliably grab several articles and a floor-based mobile robot with the same skills as the gantry robot. The institute’s researchers also explained how they are using VR to train these machines. Individuals perform desired behaviors, like wiping down a tabletop, using VR controllers, and these actions are then programmed into the robots. Other robotic companies are using comparable methods to overcome the complexities of programming physical movements into machines. These robots, however, are just prototypes, and Toyota has no current plans to market them. According to Max Bajracharya, vice president of robotics at TRI, “The robots that you see today are prototypes to accelerate our research, but they are not going to be turned into products any time soon.”

Toyota is just one of the many businesses developing home robots, but the area still remains exceedingly tricky. Even though many labs have invented machines that can complete household chores in the lab, it’s been hard to carry those skills into real homes as not every aspect of basic tasks can be measured, modeled, and predicted. Despite the difficulty, Toyota’s plan is encouraging due to the lab being focused on humans’ wants and expectations rather than neglecting them. According to TRI’s CEO Gill Pratt, “the idea is to amplify, rather than replace, human ability. It means building technology that enables us to continue to live and to work and to relate to each other as if we were younger.”

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