Need coffee? Point the way, El-E can get it

Helpful robot ready for testing

Hai Nguyen, a research student at Georgia Tech, instructs El-E the robot to pick up a cup of coffee during a recent test. Hai Nguyen, a research student at Georgia Tech, instructs El-E the robot to pick up a cup of coffee during a recent test. (STANLEY LEARY/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
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Associated Press / March 13, 2008

The El-E robot looks like something you'd see in a Hollywood sci-fi flick: It's got two lenses spaced together just like eyes and a slender 5-foot-6-inch body. It spurts out wacky catch phrases when it accomplishes its goals.

But unlike android movie stars, the El-E isn't designed to behave like a human. Rather, its focus is interaction. It simply grabs stuff you point at with a laser.

"The entire world becomes a point and click interface. Objects become buttons. And if you point at one, the robot comes to grab it," said Charlie Kemp, the director of Georgia Tech's Center for Healthcare Robotics and the robot's designer. "It creates a clickable world."

The robot, which was unveiled yesterday at an Amsterdam conference, will be tested this summer in a real-world setting involving patients with a degenerative disease. Its creators - from Georgia Tech and Emory universities - won't disclose the robot's cost, but there's hope it could be cheaper than service animals such as dogs or monkeys.

To command the El-E, the user points a laser at something for a few seconds. The robot responds with a beep and then zeros in on the target. Once there, it lifts a mechanical arm and grabs the object. It begins the return trip when the laser is pointed at the user's feet, and it looks for a human face before handing over what it grabbed.

Kemp said engineers are often too focused on making robots behave like people, ignoring other ways they can interact.

"How can you make robots that are actually useful? That was bugging me," he said. "And it's a hard question to answer - that's why I'm happy with this. We made technical contributions as well as something that actually helps users."

The robot successfully fetches its target objects off the floor 90 percent of the time, researchers said.

This summer's test will involve patients with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease, which shuts down nerve cells responsible for movement.

"It will give these folks at least a level of independence," said Dr. Jonathan Glass, director of the Emory ALS Center and a part of the team developing the robot. "You don't have to feed it, and you can train it to do anything you want to do."

Other scientists have taken notice.

"It's very impressive work," said Oliver Brock, an assistant computer science professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "It's a serious and successful attempt to build a robot that can actually coexist with humans and successfully perform a task."

El-E works by using dozens of sensors, lasers, and cameras that help it find its target item and judge the grip needed to retrieve it. A mechanical crane that can grab items from the floor or shelves dominates its slender body. It rolls around on three wheels, and it's all powered by a lone Mac mini, which sits in its base.

Researchers hope the laser-directed robot could someday open doors, switch light panels, and guide patients.

The robot's arm can only carry objects up to 1.2 pounds, and it has yet to be tested with sick patients. And when it does malfunction, it can be a bit disarming.

On a recent trial run, the El-E took a winding path on its mission to pick up a coffee mug, halting several times. When Kemp and his students figured out the problem was a low battery, it moved smoothly again, stuttering only a bit as it tightened its grip on the cup. It wheeled around and paused for a few seconds before detecting the user's face and delivering the mug.

"Bob's your uncle," it blurted out.

Mission accomplished.

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