Meet Herb, A Robot To One Day Help Around The House

May 24, 2016

Researchers at CMU work to refine the motor skills of their robotic butler prototype, Herb.
Credit Carnegie Mellon University

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Personal Robotics Lab have spent years working on ways to make robots execute subtle, human-like movements in the hopes of helping around the house. 

With cameras for eyes, two thick arms and the occasional bowtie, Herb – an acronym for home exploring robot butler – only recently learned to move a cup across a table.

"We’re trying to get robots to be able to work in a home environment," said Carnegie Mellon University Ph.D. student Jennifer King. 

Ten years in, he's grasping objects and showing markedly better hand-eye coordination through SLAM technology, or simultaneous localization and mapping.

Herb the robot creates a 3-D map in real time to assess what its looking at and how to handle objects.
Credit Melinda Roeder / 90.5 WESA

While scanning a room, Herb creates a high-resolution, three-dimensional map complete with depth perception, spacial reasoning and physical properties like weight and texture, according to Lab Director Sidd Srinvasa.

“He needs a map that not only looks good, but also works effectively for him,” Srinvasa said. 

Researchers have also been teaching Herb how to handle clutter. King said objects on a floor or shelf can be confusing to a robot on a mission.

Think of trying to reach a carton from the back of the fridge, she said. A homeowner might take some items out first, but others, he or she may just shove aside. That reasoning does not come easily to a robot.

“So we’re trying to get Herb to think about that as well,” King said. “Can he use his whole arm to move clutter out of the way in order to reach his goal rather than be afraid of it?”

Herb's got a lot to learn before he becomes the average consumer's favorite party guest, King said.

“He’s knocked things off the table. He’s broken plates and cups and bowls," she said. "It’s all part of the process to let us researchers know what we’ve done wrong.”

Coding robots requires a lot of troubleshooting and patience, but Srinvasa said even small milestones bring his ultimate goal a little closer to reality. 

“I envision a future where (a robot) like Herb … lives and stays in your home and works with you lifelong,” Srinvasa said.

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine have found a way to improve mobility and lung function in patients with severe emphysema, by implanting tiny coils into their lungs. In a large international trial, a majority of patients showed they could walk much farther distances one year after implantation. Their findings have been published in the Journal of American Medicine. Researchers also presented their study last week to the American Thoracic Society.  
  • Apple is getting ready for a massive makeover – not their iPhones, but rather, their stores. The tech and retail giant plans to renovate its nearly 480 stores worldwide this year. A company analyst says the stores were growing stale. With sales of both iPhones and iPads on the decline, the company stock has fallen by about 30 percent over the past year. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.