The researchers trained El-E to recognize a towel visually. The robot identifies the knot and the hanging end of the towel, grips the bottom of the towel, and wheels itself backward, forward, or pulls down. It uses voice-recognition software to follow the same basic commands as a service dog, such as “tug it,” “tug it down,” “push,” “bring it here,” and others.
Kemp presented his work on Tuesday at the IEEE International Conference on Biomedical Robotics and Biomechatronics, which took place in Scottsdale, AZ. Out of 40 trials, the robot was able to open and close drawers with a 90 percent success rate and open doors with an 80 percent success rate. El-E was also able to open a microwave door, using a towel attached to the door with a suction cup.
Kemp notes that a robotic service assistant would not require the same training and care as a service dog, potentially offering help to many more people. “A lot of people who would like a service dog are unable to have one because they are costly and there’s a long waiting list,” he says.
Andrew Ng, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, who was not involved in the work, describes it as “very innovative,” and adds that copying service dogs makes it much easier for a robot to operate in an unfamiliar environment. “I can easily imagine robots that use these ideas making it into the homes of disabled individuals in the next few years,” he says.
“If we’re willing to engineer the environment a little bit, [robots] will be in our home a lot sooner,” says Kemp. In addition to those with disabilities, he suggests, the elderly could benefit from having helper robots. “Service dogs give you a level of independence and privacy that you might not have with a human caregiver, and robots have that same potential,” he says.