EINDHOVEN, Netherlands — Let the robot race begin.
Expectations are high for RoboEarth, a new European-funded system to speed the development of human-serving robots. Scientists from five major European technical universities have gathered in the Netherlands this week for its launch and to demonstrate possible applications.
The first: the deceptively simple task of delivering a glass of milk to a patient in a mock-up hospital room.
The system is sometimes billed as a kind of Wikipedia for robots, allowing them — or their programmers — to turn to it for information. In a demonstration Wednesday at Eindhoven Technical University, RoboEarth wirelessly instructed a scrappy waste bin-sized robot called “Avi” to scan a room’s physical layout, including the location of the patient’s bed and the placement of a carton of milk on a table nearby.
Then the system activated a second robot, the more humanoid “Amigo,” which used the map provided by Avi to locate the milk, grasp it with a pincer hand and bring it to the side of the hospital bed. That mission accomplished, he dropped it on the floor.
Fortunately, it was a test run and no milk was spilled. Amigo hasn’t been programmed for crying anyway.
The hospital exercise is just the beginning. Organizers say the tasks the robots are carrying out are of a technological sophistication comparable to those performed by high-end robots in automobile factories — they just look clumsier because robots that interact with humans are not performing repetitive tasks in the controlled, sanitized and predictable surroundings of a factory.
The RoboEarth project was years in the making and received around 4 million euros ($5.4 million) in funding from the European Union for interrelated projects at technology conglomerate Royal Philips NV and universities in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain and Switzerland.
Designers of robots can add information to the system, which is then shared for free so that others don’t have to reinvent the electric wheel. For example, if a robot maker wants to program a hand to grasp something, that’s difficult to design. But the coding for three different ways to do it may be there for a robot to plug into on RoboEarth.