[M] Folding laundry: a challenge for robotics

Title: The Challenges of A Laundry Folding Robot
Author: Adam Fabio
Date: Wed, 24 Feb 2016 13:00:43 -0500
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[image 1]?This is the year of the general purpose home robot!? ?2016 is going
to be for robots like 1976 was for the home computer!? The problem with
statements like those is the fact that we?ve been hearing them since the
1970?s. General purpose home robots still have a long way to go. Sure, we?ve
got Roomba, we?ve even got self-driving cars. But we don?t have Rosie from the
Jetsons. And while I don?t think we?re going to get to Rosie for a while, there
are some simple challenges that can spur development in that direction. One
need look no further than one?s own laundry room.
[image 2]Using machines to wash and dry laundry isn?t a new concept. Washers
robots. Hamilton Smith patented the rotary washing machine in 1858. Maytag has
had home machines available for nearly 100 years. Many of the early machines
were powered by gasoline engines, as electricity wasn?t common in rural
farmhouses. Things have improved quite a bit since then! From the dryer we
transfer our laundry to a basket, where it has to be folded. It is this final
step that cries out for a homemaking automaton to take this chore out of
Everyman?s hands.
As one can imagine, folding laundry is one of those tasks that is easy for
humans, but hard for robots. However, it?s not impossible. The idea of this
article is to show what has been done, and get people talking. A project like
this would take a person or group of people with skills in mechanics,
electronics, machine vision, and software. It would also be sure to place well
in the 2016 Hackaday Prize.
Commercial folding machines exist. Hotels, hospitals, and other industrial
environments have machines that handle high volumes of sheets, towels, and
other pieces of laundry. These giant machines iron while they fold. Even with
modern process control technology, they still require human operators to
approach to mechanical folding, though it can?t fold everything.
Seven Dreamers Laboratories from Japan has been advertising their Laundroid
to date consists of an unfolded piece of laundry being put in the machine. The
doors close, and a few minutes later the article of clothing magically appears
folded. Until I see proof that there isn?t a person back there folding the
laundry, I?m going to call shenanigans on this one.
[image 6]The most promising work on laundry folding robots came from [Pieter
Abbeel and Jeremy Maitin-Shepard] at Berkeley[7]. Way back in 2010, the pair
and their team used a $400,000 USD PR2 robot from Willow Garage. While the
results were promising, they were operating on a limited set of laundry ?
towels, and towels only. Their final research paper details their results[8].
(PDF warning)
A basket of clean laundry is an unstructured environment. Whites, colors, and
prints all piled together. Pattern recognition is right out the window.
Garments aren?t necessarily a solid color either. What is a robot to do?
One method would be to grab something ? anything out of the basket, shake it
out, and go from there. This is a simplified view of how the Berkeley system
worked. Grasp, re-grasp, and attempt to determine the corners of the piece of
laundry. Granted, the Berkeley robot only had to deal with towels. It also had
the help of a green screen to view what it was working on. Real world laundry
is a lot more than towels. Some articles of clothing ? T-shirts for example,
don?t have well-defined 90-degree angles at every corner. T-shirts can also end
up inside out, a major problem for a laundry folding robot.
[image 9]Berkeley had a very expensive PR2 robot doing their folding. Since
most readers here on Hackaday don?t have that kind of budget, we?ll have to
find a cheaper way. Thankfully there are several robot arm projects[10] over on
Hackaday.io which are up to the task[11].
Smaller, weaker robots aren?t out of the running either. Humans come in all
shapes and sizes ? and so does their laundry. Have a small robot arm? Start
with baby clothes. Any new parent you know would be overjoyed to have help with
the laundry ? though you may have to promise to refold anything your robot
fails to complete.
[image 13][13]A robot which can fold laundry will need a lot of software.
Thankfully there are some open source libraries to build upon. Input will come
from cameras. That means we need a serious machine vision package to process
license) computer vision package which has been around since 1999. It has been
continuously improved since then. Ports exist for Mac, Windows, Linux, as well
as Android and iOS. It also runs great on the Raspberry Pi.
Output will come in the form of arm movements. In robotics terms, deciding
where you want a robot arm to move is motion planning. Actually calculating how
much to move each joint, and when to move them in order to get there is Inverse
way to lose an afternoon ? or seven years in graduate school. There?s plenty of
research out there. A good portion of it lies behind paywalls though, so if
you?re not at a major university, you?re out of luck. All is not lost though.
You can easily find free software to help with motion planning and inverse
Linux based system which forms the brain of the PR2 robot.
With input and output out of the way, all that?s left is control. This is the
software that will handle the data coming out of the OpenCV and decide where to
move the arms. Folding laundry has a huge number of variables. Trying to come
up with a simple algorithm that covers every possible piece of laundry would be
impossible (though I would love to be proven wrong on that). The best bet for
teaching a robot to fold laundry is to do just that. I?m talking of course
amount of work being done on machine learning right now. One of the giants is
Google, who just recently released TensorFlow[18] to the open source world.
TensorFlow is a package to try out machine learning algorithms. It?s also used
in real world environments like Google Voice Search and Google Images.
tools to get started. These are just my ideas though. What would you do
Filed under: Hackaday Columns[20], robots hacks[21][image 22][22][image 23][image 24]
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