Open-source robot: your next personal assistant

Imagine a robot that hands you a beer and then cleans your kitchen and living room

Imagine a robot that hands you a beer and then cleans your kitchen and living room. That's what a start-up called Willow Garage in California is busy developing. But the company isn't going it alone: Willow Garage is an open source project that wants as much outside participation as possible.

One of its immediate goals is to build 10 robots and make them available to university researchers as a common platform that can be tinkered with and improved. Willow Garage will also supply "an open-source code base integrated from the best open-source robotics software available," President and CEO Steve Cousins said at the O'Reilly ETech conference on emerging technology in San Diego.

Cousins showed a video of Willow Garage's first prototype, which moves on wheels and is "incredibly robust," Cousins said. "It has the ability to wander around any building that is (Americans with Disabilities Ac) compliant and do useful things."

Willow Garage works closely with Stanford University's STAIR (Stanford Artificial Intelligence Robot) project, and donated US$850,000 to the Stanford Computer Science Lab. Willow Garage was founded by Scott Hassan, who helped Larry Page and Sergey Brin develop Google's technology.

With private funding, Cousins said making a profit isn't the primary objective. The project will be a success if it leads to useful technology, even if someone else ends up making the money, he said.

In Cousins' video presentation, the first version of the robot could be seen vacuuming, picking up toys off the floor of a living room, taking dishes out of a dishwasher, and most importantly of all, using a bottle opener to crack open a cold, refreshing brew.

While some robots have a sleek, somewhat human-like appearance, walking on legs instead of rolling on wheels, the Willow Garage machine looks like a few hunks of metal placed together more haphazardly than Rosie from The Jetsons. Looks aren't the same thing as functionality, however. Robots with human-like legs aren't all that useful with today's technology, so Willow Garage is waiting until the walking problem is solved before putting legs on its robot.

"The goal is to come up with a useful robot in the near term," Cousins said. "We want to take robotics from research into homes."

The Willow Garage robot demonstrated in the video isn't autonomous, being mostly a demonstration of hardware capabilities. A second version, hopefully to be released late this year, is the one that Cousins said will be distributed to researchers.

The robot will be capable of simultaneous localization and mapping (SLAM), a technique used to build maps of unknown environments and navigate safely to a new area. Cameras and laser scanners, combined with a database of pictures, will allow the robot to recognize objects before it attempts to grip them. If the robot is cleaning toys off a floor, it has to be able to recognize a Lego and know where to put it. The robot needs "a notion of what a Lego is," Cousins said. "We're getting to the point where you can train vision systems."

Cousins reminisced about the time when a teenager might spend all day tinkering with his car. Stricter automobile-safety rules have made that practice a bit risky, but anyone with enough expertise will be encouraged to build on the Willow Garage robotic platform and find new uses for it, just as software developers constantly find new uses for the personal computer.

"We don't know what the killer applications will be," Cousins said.

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