When Menlo Park robotics developer Willow Garage saw most of its employees shift over to video-conferencing company Suitable Technologies in August, it dashed the dreams of everyone who wanted to see the next great open source robot come to market.
As of today, it looks like those dreams may come true after all. Unbounded Robotics, which formed in January as a spinoff from Willow Garage, will begin shipping a robot in mid-2014 that has taken some big cues from Willow Garage’s most famous robot: the PR2. Dubbed UBR-1, the robot will retail for $35,000, which is 10 percent of the cost of the PR2, and come with some upgraded abilities made possible by advancements since the PR2 debuted in 2010.
I had the chance to visit the UBR-1 last week in San Francisco. Immediately, it was obvious that the friendly-looking orange and white robot was developed to be multipurpose. It is built so that it can be delivered to a room and get to work right away, no intensive further programming required. It can roll around, extend its height to be between three and four feet tall, pick up objects and take in human speech. Its eyes are sensors developed by the company that made sensors for the Kinect, and it is constantly taking in visual information so it can interact with its surroundings.
UBR-1 is also very safe to be around. If you’re in a factory and an industrial robot swings its arm and hits you, you’re dead. UBR-1 can see you. But if it does hit you, it is more like being hit by a Roomba. It doesn’t hurt, and you can easily overpower the robot to reposition its arm.
One of the big lessons the Unbounded Robotics team took from working on the PR2 was that the UBR-1 needed to be customizable. The clamp on its hand, for example, is modular so that it can be modified. Its computer and ports are also easily accessible in a side panel.
“One approach we tried to take is making this truly a real platform, so people can develop their own applications that fit their needs, whether it is in business or a research lab,” CEO Melonee Wise said. “We’re not going to get everything right about what you need for your business or what you need for your research. We’re enabling you to customize the robot, to add new upcoming sensors.”
Unbounded Robotics’ team is made up of former Willow Garage employees who joined together within Willow to work on developing the company’s next big robot. They formed their own company and assembled the first UBR-1s in September. (If you want to learn more about human and robot interaction design, come check out a talk by Leila Takayama, a former Senior Researcher at Willow Garage, at our RoadMap conference in San Francisco in two weeks.)
The team thinks the robot’s big applications will be in research and education. At its current price tag, it’s likely the first buyers will come from businesses, which could use the robot to stock shelves or take care of repetitive manufacturing tasks. But, eventually, UBR-1 and its descendants could find their way into homes, where they would be able personal robots.
“(The UBR-1) says that we’re getting closer to robots in our home, to capable robots in our home. In three short years … we’ve been able to cost reduce (the PR2) robot by 10x,” Wise said. “I’m not saying it’s going to be a linear curve, … but I think that it means that we have a path to getting robots in our home that are very capable. For a long time now, the hardware physically has been capable of doing certain tasks. But the software is where the really big hurdles live.”