Toyota Research Institute experiments with robots that hang from the ceiling and unfold to clean the kitchen

Researchers are using fleet learning and simulations to train robots to navigate one of the most complex environments: A home.


Visiting  private homes in Japan inspired researchers to build a new domestic robot that moves around on the ceiling instead of the floor.

Image: Toyota Research Institute

Working in a factory is easy for robots with the structured environment and repetitive tasks that come with that job. Helping with housework is a much bigger challenge. Scientists at the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) are taking on that challenge by building new domestic robots and training them in a mock home.

Gill Pratt, the CEO of TRI and Kelly Kay, the Institute’s executive vice president and chief finance officer, gave a virtual tour of the TRI labs on Thursday. Max Bajracharya, the vice president of robotics and Steffi Paepcke, the senior user experience leader, explained the research and development process for building these robots. 

The team is prioritizing user experience research, human-centered design, and ikigai–the idea that each person’s life should have deep meaning and purpose. 

The institute’s philosophy is to build robots that take over tasks that have become too difficult for older adults instead of building a one-size-fits-all robot to take over all activities. One prototype is a gantry robot that unfolds from the ceiling to help with household tasks like a bat unfolding its wings. 

The floor model looks like a praying mantis perched on a box. Researchers are using these models to develop capabilities. 

“The robots that you see today are prototypes to accelerate our research, but they are not going to be turned into products any time soon,” Bajracharya said.

Field research for robotics experts

Paepcke said the team used the “genchi genbutsu” research technique which means, “go see for yourself,” to understand how to build domestic robots.

Before the pandemic started, researchers went to private homes in Japan to understand the daily challenges older adults and their caregivers face. Paepcke said that the goal was to understand which tasks people wanted help with as opposed to building a robot that does everything. Paepcke and her colleagues described the goal of their work to amplify human ability and help people continue to do tasks and activities that they find meaningful and enjoyable.

 “A fully automated cooking robot might be physically helpful but emotionally detrimental,” she 

Researchers used the home visits to move the cleaning robot from the floor to the ceiling.  

Bajracharya said that the home visits showed that there was not much floor space available for a robot to move but that the ceiling provided more open real estate.

Researchers used virtual reality (VR) to teach the domestic robots how to clean a surface. A researcher performed the task in virtual reality to show the robot how to complete the task. Another challenge is helping robots understand how to distinguish between different surfaces such as wood, glass, and plastic.

Jeremy Ma, the Institute’s co-lead of the Robotics Fleet Learning Team, said the next challenge is to

Read more