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Robots Can Now Flawlessly Iron Clothes

And they're probably better at it than you.
GIF: YouTube

Somewhere on the laundry list of things that humans can do easily and robots totally suck at it handling clothes. A shirt isn't a rigid object like a coffee cup, for example, which robots can quite easily handle; folding and ironing one requires some seriously advanced on the fly computing.

Well, here's some comforting or terrifying news, depending on which side of the "robots are going to take all our jobs or make life awesome" debate: robots can totally iron clothes all by themselves now.


What's more, the robot is honestly a hell of a lot better at ironing than I am—and, let's face it, probably you, too. I mean, just look at that technique, those crisp lines… Frankly, the end result speaks for itself.

In a paper set to be published at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automationin Stockholm in May, a team of Columbia University researchers describe how they just added the final touches to a robot they've been working on for three years—the ability to actually iron a shirt after analyzing the subtle ridges in a laid-out garment with two sensors made from Xbox Kinects.

The ability to iron a shirt is just the final stop on an ironing "pipeline." Previous papers tackled steps in the ironing pipeline, like how to get a robot to pick up a garment, recognize it, and lay it out before ironing (basically, the robot pre-computes a simulation of the garment's movements and then checks its live movements against a database of said simulations, and then adjusts its grip accordingly).

But, while having a mechanical butler do your ironing is a pretty fun idea, it's hardly practical. Instead, the real gains in the work done by the Columbia team come from the ability to handle floppy, unpredictable objects, which will have applications outside the laundromat.

"Basically, we're just saying that if you have an object that doesn't have a rigid set of states, you have to have a way to model it and deal with is, and what we were able to do is model these objects in a very nice way and figure it out," said Peter Allen, a professor of computer science at Columbia who co-authored the paper.

"You can think of working with ropes, and cable harnesses." Food production would also benefit from robots that can grasp soft objects on the fly, Allen added.

All in all, the ironing robot is probably less The Jetsons and more Ominous Signal of Our Bleak Robotized Corporate Future. But hey, whatever creases your jeans, right?