Logo: University of Southern California

New Robot on Campus: Viterbi Lab Wins Willow Garage PR2

Matarić group's "Persistent and Persuasive Personal Robot" proposal one of 11 selected out of 78 to fine-tune the open-source machines
Eric Mankin
May 05, 2010 —

The USC Viterbi School is one of 11 universities worldwide whose research proposals survived a rigorous screening by the robot design company Willow Garage. As a result, a PR2 (Personal Robot 2) will soon arrive at the Robotics Research Lab in Tutor Hall.

RS 2
PR2 beta: Soon to be more persistent and more persuasive, with Viterbi School help.
According to Willow Garage, the awards of the robots - with a total value of $4 million - kicks off "a two-year program in which the selected institutions will pursue their research and development goals as well as meet regularly to share their progress and explore new applications together."

Professor Maja Matarić, whose group will work with the PR2s, said that award was both a compliment to and welcome news for USC robotics.

"Willow is the only robotics company in the US that is fully endowed and so is not motivated by profit or by needing to write grants.  Instead, they have put the endowment toward developing the most sophisticated mobile robot for research purposes, and are giving out a small number of those to very few top robotics research institutions in the US.  USC is one of those few institutions."

The Viterbi School PR2 is a beta - a device beyond the prototype stage put into the hands of users for trials and improvement.

The software that drives the robots is open-source -- not secret, not patented, with users able and encouraged to write improvements and new applications. "Each participant in the program will contribute their research to the open-source robotics community so that the community as a whole can build on each other's results."

The Viterbi School proposal, which survived competition from 78 rival suggestions, is for Persistent and Persuasive Personal Robots (P^3R): Towards Networked, Mobile, Assistive Robotics.  

"USC has already developed software that enables teaching the PR2 basic motor skills," the proposal notes, "so it can adapt to different situations, such as the motions necessary to pour liquid into a cup. They will continue to expand on this work in imitation learning and building and refining skill libraries, while also doing research in human-robot interaction and tools to use sensors more accurately."

Matarić said the new grant is part of a gratifying emerging Viterbi School pattern. "A couple of years ago, we also received a major NSF grant from the Major Research Infrastructure (MRI) program, to get yet another cutting-edge robot, a human-scale humanoid form robot, with legs. That one is being developed and customized for USC, by Sarcos Inc. now owned by Raytheon.  They made the Bellagio fountains and make all the Disney park animatronics.

"With these two cutting-edge full-size complex robots, USC will have as sophisticated robotics hardware as any lab and better than almost all other universities,"