Campus Researchers Develop Software that Enables Robots to Fold Towels

Photo: UC Berkeley researchers have successfully programmed a robot to fold towels, a feat was previously unaccomplished because robots typically do not handle non-rigid objects well.
Willow Garage/Courtesy
UC Berkeley researchers have successfully programmed a robot to fold towels, a feat was previously unaccomplished because robots typically do not handle non-rigid objects well.


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Video of Robot Folding Cloth

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A new robot programmed by UC Berkeley researchers may make the manual folding of clothes a thing of the past.

Researchers have developed software allowing a robot to fold towels without human help, a feat previously not accomplished in robot history due to the complexity of handling non-rigid objects. The researchers will present their findings at the 2010 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers International Conference on Robotics and Automation May 3 to 8.

In the past, robots have only been able to fold towels in a factory setting, where humans would feed them the towels in a uniform way, said Jeremy Maitin-Shepard, a UC Berkeley graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science and co-developer of the robot's software.

"In terms of the particular task of folding towels or laundry, there is no 'past version' of the software," Maitin-Shepard said in an e-mail. "This is the first time a general-purpose robot, not a factory-style machine specifically designed for towels, has reliably folded towels, starting from a pile in an arbitrary configuration."

According to Stuart Russell, professor and chair of the electrical engineering and computer sciences department, the robot-provided by Willow Garage, a privately funded company in Menlo Park-was not dramatically different from other robot models.

"We noticed we now are starting to have the kind of robotic platforms which have the hardware capabilities to perform a wide variety of tasks but lack the software to execute them," said Pieter Abbeel, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science and co-developer of the software, in an e-mail. "Overly simplifiedly phrased, they have the body but not the brains yet."

In test drives, the robot successfully folded all towels it was tasked to pick up, an impressive feat because robots tend to make mistakes, said Ken Goldberg, assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science.

"Finding the edges and corners of the towels is tricky, and doing it with towels the robot has never seen before is quite an achievement," Russell said in an e-mail. "The seeing isn't perfect, so sometimes the robot mistakes one corner for another-as do humans from time to time-and sometimes it loses its grip, but the overall control program is designed to be robust against failure and can recover from such problems."

Abbeel said in the e-mail he would eventually like to see the robot in homes.

But according to Russell, the current robot on which the software was installed costs "well over" $50,000.

Russell said in the e-mail that in the future, modifications to the robot software, including increasing the robot's speed and improvements in the robot's learning capabilities, are necessary to make the robot a feasible component in everyday life.

"One could imagine that in the future the robot would be enabled to perform a wide variety of tasks, such as doing laundry, un/loading the dishwasher, setting the table, cooking, and so forth," Abbeel said in the e-mail. "This will require a substantial amount of novel research."

Tags: ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING AND COMPUTER SCIENCE, INSTITUTE OF ELECTRICAL AND ELECTRONICS ENGINEERING, WILLOW GARAGE


Contact Claire Perlman at [email protected]



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