Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is taking the lead in developing advanced robotics that can provide practical help for elderly and disabled people and those recovering from illness or injury. This is part of Toyota’s mobility mission to help less able people lead independent lives in their own homes.
The latest advances developed by the teams at TRI’s research centers in the USA include robots that know how to load the dishwasher, can recognize the different rooms in a house, and have a “bubble grip” hand that can safely move delicate objects.
TRI is working on home-based assistance concepts to help address the challenges presented by the world’s ageing population. According to the United Nations, during the next three decades, the global population aged over 65 is predicted to more than double, reaching a total of more than 1.5 billion by 2050.
The potential and challenges of human amplification robots
TRI believes robots aren’t seen in household roles today because scientists haven’t yet figured out how to make robots operate reliably in the complex, unstructured environments people function in every day. Unlike a factory, where the environment is structured and programmable, people’s homes are all different, with objects in different and constantly changing configurations.
To deal with the diversity it will encounter in a home environment, TRI teaches the robot to perform arbitrary tasks with a variety of objects, rather than program it to do predefined tasks with specific objects. In this way, the robot learns to link what it sees with what it has been taught, so that if sees an object and scenario again, even if the scene has changed slightly, it will know what actions it can perform with respect to what it can see.
Simulation for manipulation research
TRI has made a significant investment in simulation for engineering and validating robot behaviors. The mechanics of the way a robot hand interacts with an object is very complicated to simulate, so simulations have traditionally not been used for robotic manipulation research.
TRI’s simulation software provides a way to understand a robot’s performance without having to physically perform all the tasks every time a change is made when teaching a robot a new behavior, or refining one that it already knows. Simulation results are tested in mock-up kitchens in the TRI lab.
New robotic hardware and software
TRI is also looking at more radical ideas for the home, including a “gantry robot” that would descend from an overhead framework to do tasks such as loading the dishwasher and wiping surfaces. By traveling on the ceiling, it avoids the problem of negotiating household floor clutter and cramped spaces. When not in use, it tucks itself neatly out of the way. The team has built a prototype of this concept that can do all the same tasks as a mobile floor robot.
Meeting real user needs
For robotics to be successful in the home, TRI believes it is important to discover and consider individual human tastes, needs, and means of fulfillment. It takes a “fail fast” approach to technology development so that its work can more quickly make a positive impact on actual lives and improve social good. Rather than simply developing capabilities that researchers find interesting or think will push the field forward, TRI has a Robotics User Experience and Industrial Design group to uncover and probe real user needs.
TRI’s robotics charter is to develop new robotics capabilities for Toyota that can contribute to solving real world problems and aiding global societies. To create real-world impact, it is working closely with other groups inside of Toyota, including Toyota AI Ventures, Toyota’s first corporate venture capital firm that strategically invests in early stage start-ups.
Another group is the Woven Planet Holdings Group – previously TRI-AD – which focuses on taking new capabilities from TRI and other parts of Toyota and, in collaboration with them, developing them into product concepts.