Christmas arrived on a Thursday in mid-May for Chad Jenkins and his robotics research group. Inside a six-foot-tall crate was the latest-generation personal robot, purchased by Jenkins for $280,000.
The PR2 robot, one of about a dozen made available by the company Willow Garage to higher-education institutions and companies worldwide, is equipped with movable arms and pincer-like hands to grasp and manipulate objects. Like the movie character Wall-E, the PR2 has laser-range vision that allows it to scan for obstacles and objects so it can move around freely.
“I’m just thrilled,” said a beaming Jenkins, associate professor of computer science. “It’s the first time we have a serious robot with which we can do big experiments locally.”
Jenkins said his lab wants to advance the capability of robots to navigate their environment and to perform domestic-service functions. He and his group want to explore what the PR2 can do in the kitchen, be it loading a dishwasher, setting the table or even preparing a meal. “We want to think about interesting problems,” he said, noting the findings would be available for other researchers to scrutinize and build upon.
On hand to witness the robot’s arrival at Brown were two members of Jenkins’ robotics group, postdoctoral research associate Chris Crick and first-year graduate student Brian Thomas. Jenkins’s wife and two of his children also came out for the unveiling.
“Say nice to meet you, robot,” Jenkins instructed his 4-year-old son, Wesley, who eyed the robot warily.
“Nice to meet you, robot,” Wesley said.