Standardizing Home Robots

YCB kit containing 77 objects aims to set a baseline for robotic object manipulation.

Sure, your robot can pour from a pitcher, but how large and heavy is it? Does it have a lid? What material is it made from? (Image courtesy of Yale.)

Sure, your robot can pour from a pitcher, but how large and heavy is it? Does it have a lid? What material is it made from? (Image courtesy of Yale.)

Robots are everywhere, not just in manufacturing and warehouses, but city streets and office boardrooms.

For that reason, it’s not much of a stretch to think that we’ll soon have helpful ‘bots in our homes to assist with chores and other daily activities. But how will the various manufacturers know how their home robots stack up against the competition?

A collaboration between Yale, Carnegie Mellon, and Berkeley (YCB) has developed a set of tools for this situation, dubbed the YCB Object and Model Set. If adopted by home robot manufacturers, this could be a significant step toward a create a standard for the robotic manipulation of objects and tools.

Home Robot Training Kit

The YCB Kit is a suitcase-sized box containing 77 objects divided into different categories. The Food Group, for example, includes a cereal box, a cylinder of Pringles chips and a can of Spam.

Tools range from small nails and wood blocks to a cordless drill.

Aaron Dollar, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Yale developed the kit to include a wide variety of item types and sizes (the smallest is a washer, the largest a water pitcher). Some items have simple geometric shapes that are relatively easy to grasp, while the complex shapes of others pose a greater challenge for robotic hands.

Sure, your robot can pour from a pitcher, but how large and heavy is it? Does it have a lid? What material is it made from? (Image courtesy of Yale.)

(Image courtesy of Yale.)

In addition to the objects, the project also provides five examples of manipulation tasks, such as pouring water from a pitcher to a mug, setting the table or constructing simple toys—with benchmarks for each. 

A website for the project allows others to expand on these tasks by contributing their own protocols and benchmarks. When laboratories work solely by their own standards and protocols, Dollar said, there’s often an unconscious bias toward that lab’s particular strengths. Universal standards would provide a more impartial way to evaluate laboratory results.

These benchmarks, set using a standardized set of protocols, are intended to assist the design of robots that are capable of functioning beyond the limitations of an industrial setting.

“In a structured environment, a robot sees exactly the same object in exactly the same place,” Dollar said.

“It’s a relatively straightforward thing to get robots to operate in those environments because you just have to program it to do one thing. And you can always program something to do one thing well.”

Roboticists generally agree that the technology has only recently reached the point where a set of standards in robotic operation would have a benefit, as the sophistication of the technology grows.

“As robots move out of the lab and into the real world, it gets harder to understand their capabilities and limitations,” said Robert Howe, a professor of engineering at Harvard.

“In a factory where everything is carefully arranged, you can rigorously test how they work, but in my kitchen I have 20 kinds of coffee mugs. So it’s a big puzzle how to characterize and compare robots. The approach that Aaron is taking is a promising one.”

Standards have long been essential in scientific advancement, from coordinated and scheduled time set by atomic clocks, to systems of measurement and global GPS.

The YCB Set has been adopted by nearly 100 robotics labs worldwide since its debut at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in 2015.

It is becoming easier and easier to imagine a robot in your home who assists with cooking and cleaning – a distant dream of the 1950’s. With the YCB Kit setting a standard, or at least getting people thinking of what would be necessary, the future is starting to look a lot more automated.

For more home robotics news, check out this robot that folds your clothes.