The CoBots, which run a combination of C++, Python, and Java, aren’t much to look at. Each of Veloso’s robot minions is a less-than-elegant assemblage of a camera and a laptop atop a wheeled base, along with a Microsoft Kinect that’s used for navigation and obstacle avoidance (see video below). A tangle of visible wires connects everything together. But function is the focus here. You assign tasks to the CoBot via a web interface, and once a task is completed, you press a button to release the robot from the task so it can either return to its home base, or embark on its next journey.
If Veloso’s CoBots tell us anything, it’s that Hollywood-style science fiction portrays robotics in a way that’s completely dissonant with where technology stands today. We’re a long way off from seeing C-3PO and Wall-E criss-cross the universe (or heck, even a city or an office space) without getting tripped up on physical obstacles. Our world isn’t static. Human interactions — and the spaces we reside in — are constantly changing and evolving.
It’s difficult for robots to anticipate and handle these physical unknowns, but Veloso, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon, aims to change that through her work with autonomous robots designed to perform daily, human tasks. Obstacle avoidance may not seem very glamorous at first glance — most people want their robots to shoot lasers or cry “danger!” — but it’s a linchpin of real-world robotics, and it’s one of Veloso’s key areas of focus.