This Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase-II project will create the technological components, operator interfaces, and integration necessary to achieve practical Personal Service Robots. Personal service challenges robots with unstructured, cluttered, and ever-changing environments, and requires execution of complex tasks. Our novel approach allows autonomous algorithms to request human assistance as needed. Across multiple tiers, assistance can range from simply identifying a partially occluded object, to selecting an appropriate grasp configuration, or even to unsticking a wedged object by direct teleoperation; however, sustained operator involvement should only occur infrequently. This approach enables imperfect autonomy to complete full tasks while minimizing manual labor needs as compared to classical teleoperation. Efforts during Phase I established the feasibility of this combined approach while demonstrating the execution of typical household tasks. Developments under Phase II will focus on reducing the human workload. Major innovations will occur from three elements: (a) creating and optimizing distinct operator interfaces for different assistance needs, (b) refining autonomy to reduce the need for assistance, and (c) narrowing applications and support algorithms to relevant and desired service tasks. These developments will allow individual operators to support multiple robots in parallel, with the multiplicative effect amplifying manual labor savings.
The broader impact/commercial potential of this project addresses the fact that the U.S., like many industrialized nations, is seeing its demographics shift to an older population. This implies a shrinking workforce as well as rising labor needs to support the older adult community, which will require greater assistance with tasks of daily living as they age. Robotics is often considered a solution to stretch a limited labor supply. The company specifically target personal service robotics to support older adults via either home care providers or assisted living facilities. By reducing operator workload and allowing a single operator to assist multiple robots performing personal service tasks, this R&D effort can increase the productivity of service labor and provide a higher quality of personal service than traditionally possible. This robotic approach can also more easily distribute the labor across physical distances. This will allow older adults to age in familiar housing, retain greater independence, and reduce their expenses at home or in assisted living facilities.