When Aaron Edsinger was 12, he grew impatient with the family TV, which had a clunky dial and no remote control. So he built a mechanical hand that let him change channels from the couch.
Now Edsinger, SM ‘01, PhD ‘07, is the lead researcher behind Domo, a robot designed to assist elderly and disabled people with tasks like shelving groceries. “The future for robots involves adapting to changes in surroundings,” says the 34-year-old postdoctoral associate at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.
Robots’ core elements include sensors that transmit signals to register stimuli, actuators that convert energy into motion, and software that controls actions. For factory-floor robots, those actions are repetitive, but Domo is no one-trick pony. “I can work with Domo for a half-hour and never do the exact same thing twice,” Edsinger says. He and his collaborators developed algorithms that let Domo place unfamiliar objects on a shelf or in a cup. “It’s not that robots have never adapted in real time before,” he says. What’s new is how broadly Domo adapts on the fly.
Domo inherited much from two MIT-designed forebears: Kismet, which was created to interact with humans, and Cog, which was designed to learn about objects by poking them with its hand. (Edsinger worked on both; Cog was at the heart of his master’s thesis.) Domo has Kismet’s face-tracking capabilities, so its enormous blue eyes can follow humans and encourage interaction. From Cog, Domo gained the framework for its arms, as well as the shock-absorbing actuators, called series elastic actuators, used in 22 of its 29 joints.
Domo responds primarily to verbal commands but registers physical cues as well. Say “Domo, here,” and the robot fixes its gaze on the speaker, extending a hand to receive objects. Grab Domo’s arm while it reaches for a shelf, and it stops. A dozen computers help the robot interpret its surroundings. The data flow through an Ethernet connection to a main computer, which controls Domo’s body.
Human-robot collaboration can be of great value, Edsinger says: “A person may have great planning and perception skills, but maybe they don’t have great physical ability. The robot and person can work together as a team.”