If you can’t wait for a hacked Neato LIDAR system and you need some cheap localization and mapping hardware, you might want to take a good look at Microsoft’s Kinect system, which has already been hacked open and made available to anyone using ROS.
MIT’s Personal Robotics Group has put together the demo in the vidbelow , which shows an iRobot Create plus a Kinect sensor performing 3D SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) and also reacting to gesture inputs from a human, which is pretty cool. Most of the heavy lifting is done by an offboard computer, but there’s no reason that the whole system couldn’t be easily integrated into the robot itself, since I think I remember hearing that Kinect is minimally intensive when it comes to processing requirements.
This kind of thing is really, really fantastic because we’re starting to see high quality sensing systems that provide awesome data being available for what’s basically dirt cheap. Remember those DARPA Grand Challenge cars and their hundreds of thousands of dollars of ranging sensors? It was only a few years ago that 3D sensing hardware was totally, completely out of range for hobby robotics, and now, in the space of like 6 months, we’ve actually got options. Yeah, it’s piggybacking off of other tech, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and it’s only going to get better as the gaming and automotive industry invest more resources in making their machines smarter, not just faster.