Toyota Research Institute shows service robot prototypes in virtual open house

Toyota Research VR

While most automakers focus on robotics for manufacturing or on autonomous vehicle development, Toyota Motor Corp. has also been investigating service robots for household use. Yesterday, Toyota Research Institute conducted a virtual open house of its research and development facilities in Los Altos, Calif., and Cambridge, Mass.

Toyota Research Institute (TRI) demonstrated how robots can learn and conduct tasks such as wiping down surfaces, picking up varied items and loading a dishwasher, and operating in dynamic environments designed for humans rather than robots. TRI also showed manipulation research conducted with both physical robots and simulation, as well as a mockup home built inside its California laboratory.

TRI’s assistive robots are roughly humanoid, with two arms, a wheeled base, and multiple degrees of freedom. The company is also developing algorithms, grippers, and other service robots with partners.

Toyota Research Institute invests in human amplification

Toyota is investing in robotics to amplify human capabilities as a logical extension of how the car amplifies mobility, said Gill Pratt, CEO of Toyota Research Institute. TRI’s research into robotics, assisted driving, accelerated materials design and discovery, and machine-assisted cognition is guided by the concept of Ikigai, which means that each person’s life should have purpose, he said.

“Studies of Ikigai teach us that we feel most fulfilled when our lives incorporate work that we love and that helps society,” said Pratt. “To enable more people to achieve their Ikigai, TRI is pursuing new forms of ‘automation with a human touch,’ known as ‘Jidoka’ in the Toyota Production System, to develop capabilities that amplify rather than replace human ability.”

The global population over the age of 65 is expected tho double by 2050, according to the United Nations. As the populations of developed nations such as Japan age, the need for robot-assisted care will only grow, said Steffi Paepke, senior user experience designer at TRI.

“TRI robotics research is focused on the home because it is in that environment that robots can provide the greatest assistance in achieving human fulfillment,” said Max Bajracharya, vice president of robotics at TRI. “It is also one of the most complex environments for robots to master.”

Robots to learn from simulation, fleets

“Getting large amounts of data is not really practical,” Bajracharya said. “We’re working on how to learn from less data.”

“Our work is focused on two key challenges: teaching robots from human behavior and using simulation to both train and validate robot behaviors.” he explained. “We think of this idea as fleet learning, where when one machine learns something, they all learn something. We believe this is going to be the key to making robots in human environments practical.”

TRI instructs robots with a telepresence and virtual reality system, in which a staffer models a task for a robot. The combination of human instruction and the ability to run numerous robots in parallel simulations should make it easier for robots to learn and share how to handle new objects, said Russ Tedrake, vice president of robotics research at TRI.

Source: Toyota Research Institute

“We’ve used our dish-loading robot and clutter-clearing experiments to automatically improve our behaviors in simulation and have that result in improved performance on the real robots,” he said.

Toyota Research Institute has already learned some valuable lessons about manipulation, Tedrake added. He demonstrated a soft bubble gripper similar to human finger pads that includes cameras inside to record how different objects deform the bubbles.

TRI is also working on how to build trust with user engagement through a “principled” human-robot interaction (HRI) approach, said Paepke.

TRI bubble mug

Bubble gripper and mug. Source: Toyota Research Institute

TRI robot hangs out in the kitchen

Another new piece of hardware that Toyota Research Institute showed at 4x speed was its gantry kitchen robot, similar to Miso Robotics Inc.’s Flippy Robot-on-a-Rail system. Rather than have a mobile robot take up precious floor space in a domestic kitchen, TRI is experimenting with a robotic assistant hanging from the ceiling.

“We rely heavily on observational research techniques such as contextual inquiries,” said Paepcke. “Before COVID-19, we went to Japan to work with our research partners to visit the homes of older adults and observe them going about their daily lives, making note of friction points, challenges, and opportunities.”

“We observed that cooking is a beloved activity for many, though it can get more strenuous over time,” she said. “Sharing meals and feeding loved ones also can serve as a focal point for social connection, so giving elderly people a fully automated cooking robot or pre-cooked meals might be physically beneficial but emotionally detrimental.”

In the case of the gantry robot, there is a tradeoff between changing the environment and providing assistance, Bajracharya said. Both reliability and cost need to be considered as early as possible in its design process, added Pratt.

“We’re not just aiming at people over 65 but their children and grandchildren, who will be getting these robots for them,” Pratt said. TRI is thinking of individual early adopters and health insurers, as well as builders, which could incorporate robots such as the kitchen gantry into their designs, he said.

Toyota Research gantry

Gantry kitchen robot. Source: Toyota Research Institute

Toyota Research Institute works toward the future

TRI said its goal is for robots to enable people to “age in place,” prolonging their independence rather than have them be sent to expensive nursing homes.

“The difference between Toyota and other companies … what we’re really trying to do is build a time machine,” Pratt said. Toyota’s robots are not just a convenience or replacing fulfilling jobs but are intended to restore people’s capabilities to work and relate to one another as they did when they were younger, he said.

The Toyota unit is working on other proofs of concept with Toyota Research Institute-Advanced Development (TRI-AD), soon to be rebranded as Wolven Planet Holdings Group. It includes Woven City, a “living laboratory” being built in Japan, and Woven Capital.

Gill Pratt

TRI CEO Gill Pratt. Source: Toyota Research Institute

“Woven Planet is working incredibly hard in Japan,” Pratt told The Robot Report. “Woven City is human-centered and will tie all of us together. TRI [regularly and virtually] meets with the Woven City team, and we’re really excited to see this in the future.”

Woven Capital will collaborate with Toyota AI Ventures. That unit invests in startups such as Intuition Robotics Ltd., which is testing ElliQ, a companion robot for older adults. In the case of telepresence and social robots, their ability to help people connect more easily can have psychological benefits, Pratt added.

However, consumers waiting for The Jetsons‘ Rosie the Robot will have to be patient because of the complexity of tasks, environments, and objects to be handled, from toys and dishes to laundry.

The robots shown in the virtual open house are research models, not production ones, Pratt said. Commercialization for Toyota Research Institute’s household robot is still a ways off, acknowledged Kelly Kay, executive vice president and chief finance officer at TRI.

“Robots aren’t ready yet for unstructured environments in the home, which are different from those in a factory, where they’re doing repetitive tasks,” she said. “We know how to hand off promising applied research concepts to partners for actual development.”

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