Researchers Create Robot That Can Pair, Fold Socks

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UC Berkeley Robot Pairs Socks!

At UC Berkeley, a robot was developed with the ability to fold towels and now has an added feature - sock pairing!

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When a lonely sock is missing its match, a robot can now take on the task of finding it.

The same UC Berkeley researchers who developed software allowing robots to fold towels in April have returned to the robotic scene - this time giving robots the ability to pair socks.

Pieter Abbeel, a UC Berkeley assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science, co-developed the software with Trevor Darrell, an adjunct associate professor in the same department along with three undergraduate and graduate students.

Although the research is not yet complete, the team did submit the robot to a contest held by Willow Garage - the company that builds the robotic platforms the researchers use - where it won first place, receiving a prize of $5,000.

"Sockification," as the project was called at the contest, beat submissions from other universities, including a robot from the University of Pennsylvania that could play songs by U2 and the Beatles on the keyboard and drums.

The research to develop the sock-pairing technology, which began in July, was a continuation of research Abbeel presented in April, where he demonstrated that a robot could deal with nonrigid objects by programming it to fold towels.

But in order to pair socks, the robot needs to not only be able to successfully handle a malleable object such as cloth, but also find and match a pair of socks from a pile. In addition, the robot must be capable of predicting whether a sock is inside out, choosing a point at which to pick up the sock at its opening, manipulating the sock to flip it inside out and pairing the socks up, Abbeel said.

"Robots like to deal with things that are standard shapes," said Steven Velinsky, a professor of mechanical engineering at UC Davis. "Robots are really good at picking up the same type of object over and over again. It is difficult to manipulate (a sock) - if you rotate the sock, it is going to fold - so there are certain aspects that are going to make it challenging."

Abbeel said currently the robot can determine whether a sock is inside out based on the texture, flipping it if necessary and bunching it with its match. He added that they are just beginning to look into the issue of matching similarly patterned socks from a pile.

Of course, the ultimate goal, Abbeel said, is to make the robot be able to perform useful tasks.

"One of the main challenges in bringing robots to our everyday environments is to enable them to deal with situations that are not identical each time the robot has to perform the task," he said in the e-mail.


Claire Perlman covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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