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Toyota’s ceiling-mounted robotic arm is a perfect butler

A Toyota robot suspended from the ceiling gets to work wiping a counter.PHOTOGRAPH: TOYOTA RESEARCH INSTITUTE

Toyota is best known for its cars. However, the company also works extensively in areas like robotics. It recently unveiled some major breakthroughs in the space that are the result of a $1 billion investment made five years ago.

The Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is home to a wide variety of projects that deal with robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and self-driving cars. One of the most impressive is a ceiling-mounted robot that’s designed to offer some extra help around the house. It’s a sort of robotic butler that could catch on in the real world.

Robo-Alfred

Toyota’s robotic butler moves around overhead thanks to a set of tracks built into the ceiling. Typically, robots roll around or walk on the floor. This one is designed to stay out of the way by not sharing space with its human hosts.

Of course, that isn’t the only advantage. Researchers from TRI note that mounting the robot to the ceiling makes it easier to train. Without needing to worry about obstacles like furniture and pets, the robot is able to move around much more freely. It also prevents human-robot collisions as it moves throughout the house.

On top of this, when it’s not in use, the robot folds up to the ceiling so it takes up less space.

What makes this bot particularly interesting, however, is the way that it is trained. TRI says that the system learns by watching human actions and then replicating them. This can be done with the use of a virtual reality (VR) headset. For instance, you can vacuum the room while using VR and the robot would learn from that experience so that it can do it the next time.

Thanks to its many joints, the robot is able to move in almost any direction, making it perfect for multi-tasking. After being taught, the system is capable of handling many different types of housework. That’s obviously attractive to consumers who don’t like keeping up with routine chores.

The Draw Back

Of course, TRI’s robotic butler isn’t a perfect solution. Its biggest issue is that the house needs to essentially be built around the robot. The ceiling-mounted track needs to be installed in every room where the robot operates and isn’t sightly. It would also be costly to install.

At this point, it isn’t very realistic to think about installing the robot in a home that is already built. That means Toyota would have to pursue current home construction projects as its target market for the robo-butler.

It’s worth noting that the company doesn’t have any plans to try and sell the system at this time. There is plenty of time to continue working on the design if it wants to sell the robot to a wider variety of consumers.

One area where the system could excel is something like an elder care facility—as Popular Science’s Stan Horaczek points out. During the construction of a unit, if each room was designed to be almost identical, it would be easy to train a network of robots to perform tasks in each one.

Although the age of robotic household helpers isn’t quite here, innovations like this one show that those days are just around the corner.

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