Fed up of loading the dishwasher? Give Boris a call

Scientists from the University of Birmingham think they have found a way to load the dishwasher without having to touch dirty dishes.

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Its solution comes in the form of a robot called “Boris” that can grab unfamiliar objects with a humanlike grip and is one of the only robots on the planet that can perform such a task.

"This is Boris' first public outing," announced Professor Jeremy Wyatt of the School of Computer Science at the University of Birmingham, of a robot that cost £350,000 to create and has been five years in the making, whilst talking at the British Science Festival.

Boris uses depth sensors on its face and wrists to “see” objects and it takes just 10 seconds to calculate a thousand ways to grasp the object using its five robotic fingers before planning a path of arm movements to reach the target and avoid obstructions, reports the BBC.

The ambitious target to teach Boris to load a dishwasher is being worked on by Wyatt and collaborators in the international PacMan project, the hope being that Boris can complete the task by April 2015.

"You get a bunch of objects off a table, scattered as you might have them on a kitchen surface, and the robot will look through the set of objects, find one it wants to pick up, figure out where to put it in the dishwasher, and load it," said Professor Wyatt. "Plates are nice and symmetric… I think knives and forks might be a bit hard."

Professor Wyatt explained that Boris is part of a third generation of robots. The first generation involved industrial robots that rely on precisely controlled surroundings; the second generation includes airborne drones and other mobile robots that can share our world “even though that world is uncertain and full of novelty”. Boris’ generation aims to cope with that uncertainty and perform tasks alongside humans successfully.

Boris’ life hasn’t been without hiccups as Professor Wyatt revealed that it “broke its pinkie back in June” and therefore the current incarnation is working with a broken finger.

The team most recently added the ability to choose between five different grasp types that automatically change to fit the situation being presented and the next stage is to enable Boris to use its left arm.

In the long term?

"To build robots capable of operating in human environments - offices, hospitals, warehouses," explained Dr Nick Hawes, who is head of a team training another University of Birmingham robot, “Bob”.

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Professor Wyatt is proud the project is from the UK and sees its future development very much on these shores.

"This is great British tech that has been patented," said Professor Wyatt. "The UK is one of the leaders in the world in terms of dexterous hands."