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February 1, 2010

HERB, the Robot Butler

Who wouldn't want a butler to wait on them hand and foot? Meet HERB, a robot butler in training

Tired of taking out the garbage, sweeping the floor or doing the dishes? Researchers at Intel Labs located on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are figuring out a way to take the drudgery out of house work. They are creating a robot butler named HERB that doesn't mind doing the mundane one bit, or one byte.

"We want HERB to perform useful tasks in the home and with minimum delays," explains Siddhartha Srinivasa, a senior research scientist who is leading the project. "No one wants to have a robotic butler that sits and stares at a bunch of coffee mugs for 20 minutes before figuring out the best way to pick one up. We want it to happen just as fast as you would do it."

HERB stands for Home Exploring Robotic Butler. The idea is to create a robot that can walk into a home, assess the layout and move about on its own. To do that, HERB is being designed to be smart and resourceful. With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), researchers are programming HERB to think on its own.

At the Intel lab, researchers have spent more than two years programming HERB. So far, it can recognize and handle 15 different objects, but programming it to pick up a cup of coffee versus a bottle of water is not as easy as it might seem.

"Some things are heavy, some things you don't want to tip, some things you want HERB to handle carefully and HERB needs to be able to understand all of that," says Srinivasa.

As if to illustrate the point, as Srinivasa is explaining the complexities, HERB grabs a bottle in the makeshift kitchen at the lab and, instead of holding the bottle upright, turns it upside down and drops it before reaching the table. The bottle crashes to the floor. Back to the drawing board!

Still in the early stages of development, HERB is not a looker. It rolls around on a Segway®, the well known stand-and-ride scooter. The robot has one long arm with three fingers, made by Barrett Technologies, to pick up objects. Barrett is funded by NSF's Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. HERB also has a camera to see and a spinning laser that maps out a 3-D model of where it is at any given time. Two on-board computers process the information and create a cartoon of HERB's environment. That 3-D cartoon is what HERB uses for navigation. In this case, the computer screen shows a cartoon image of HERB in the kitchen, similar to the real one at the lab, with bottles scattered on a counter just as they are in the real world kitchen.

"That screen is HERB's hallucination of the world. That's what HERB thinks the world looks like," says Srinivasa. "And it's important that HERB's world is similar to the real world. We're trying to match these worlds as much as possible."

As researchers move bottles around the real world kitchen, HERB's cartoon world automatically updates the changes. This time, HERB picks up a bottle upright and hands it to Srinivasa.

"Thanks, HERB."

Researchers believe senior citizens and the disabled will be the early adopters of robot butlers, since they most need help around the house. Given the concept, we asked a group of active women seniors meeting for coffee to ponder the thought.

"There are all sorts of chores that a robot might do for you," says 87-year-old Jean Paxton.

"It's a fantastic idea," adds Bette Cromwell, "particularly for older people; you get arthritis in your hands and a robot would be a helpful thing."

"I'd like him to do my laundry and get my mail," says Edith Miller.

"I have to use a cane right now," says Adelaide Waller, "so I could lean on the robot, I guess."

Srinivasa is optimistic that, in about 10 years, a robot butler will be able to serve coffee to ladies like these.

"I'd like him to go shopping for me; that would be nice," says Miller.

"He could carry the packages," adds Cromwell.

"Who knows? A robot could be a companion, too," notes Waller.

"I'd want him to be good looking," Miller chimes in. A male or female, we asked. "Male!" exclaims Miller.

OK, we hear you. One silicon stud that's handy with a dust mop coming right up. But by all means, please don't tell HERB he's homely.

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Ann Kellan, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.