Those blockbuster Marvel movies only show our favourite superheroes when they're out saving the world. If you want a glimpse of what heroes like Iron Man do the rest of the time, look no further than this incredibly articulated humanoid robot called TEO, who's recently learned to iron clothing.
TEO's been in development at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid in Getafe, Spain, for a few years already, and has already mastered challenges such as climbing stairs and opening doors. They're not terribly exciting achievements as far as robotic breakthroughs go, but learning those skills has helped TEO move one step closer to becoming more like The Jetsons' robotic maid Rosie than Tony Stark's Iron Man.
In a paper accepted for publication at the 2017 IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems in Vancouver, Canada (pre-print available here), researchers at the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid's Robotics Lab detail the creation of a new algorithm that allows TEO to identify and remove wrinkles in a garment placed on an ironing board using a depth-sending camera in its head, regular room lighting, and without knowing what unwrinkled pants, shirts or dresses are supposed to look like.
The algorithm studies the garment laid out before it, and breaks it down into thousands of individual points that are assigned a value between 0 and 1. Points with values closer to 1 represent areas with a sharp edge, such as a stitched seam, or the edge of the ironing board, while values closer to 0 represent flat and smooth areas of fabric that are unwrinkled. It's the numbers that fall in between 0 and 1, and how quickly they increase or decrease in value compared to neighbouring points, that allow the algorithm to identify hills and valleys that indicate a wrinkle.
Once the wrinkles have been identified, the algorithm plots an efficient path for a standard clothes iron to follow in order to smooth them all out. That data is then passed onto the rest of TEO's sub-systems responsible for controlling the robot, allowing it to pick up the iron and make the necessary movements to eradicate wrinkles.
TEO hasn't quite mastered his new skill yet. The robot moves at a snail's pace which can be problematic with a scorching hot appliance sitting on your favourite shirt. It's also not able to recognise and avoid common clothing features such as pockets, zippers, or other embellishments that do not require ironing. But the researchers are hoping to continue to improve TEO's abilities here, before moving onto other domestic duties.