iRobot and Cisco Team Up to Create Ava 500 Telepresence Robot

One of the biggest companies in robotics has teamed up with one of the biggest in telepresence to create a new remote collaboration robot. iRobot and Cisco announced today they are working together to develop a robot called Ava 500 that can autonomously drive around an office and offers crisp HD video experience.

The two companies, which are demonstrating the new robot at a trade show this week in Florida, say it will be available early next year (no details on price yet some reports say the robot will cost around US $2,000 to $2,500 per month to lease). The Ava 500 blends technologies from both companies: iRobot has built a capable autonomous navigation platform that it's been integrating into its remote presence robots; and networking giant Cisco is a major provider of video telepresence systems to the corporate market (and to Jack Bauer).

Telepresence robots designed to let off-site workers participate in meetings and visit remote locations are becoming increasingly popular. Offerings vary from streamlined models like the Double to sophisticated and more costly robots like iRobot's RP-VITA, which can be used in hospitals. Other remote presence robots include JazzVgo, QB, and Beam.

Ava 500

Ava 500

The Ava 500 stands out from other robots thanks to its autonomous navigation technology. In other telepresence robots, a remote user has to drive it around. Piloting a mobile robot at a distance is a lot of fun (you almost feel like you have a body at another location), but it can also be a barrier to some users. Ava 500 makes it easier to get around: It maps the environment with a PrimeSense 3D sensor, and once it's learned where different rooms are, you can just tell the robot where to go and it will drive itself there, avoiding collisions with the water cooler and your coworkers.

Another feature of the Ava 500 is its big screen. A number of existing telepresence robots have only small-ish screens, forcing people to squint to see the remote user's face. Not the Ava 500. Sitting atop the robotic platform is Cisco’s TelePresence EX60 system equipped with a 21.5-inch display (it's typically used as a desktop device!), which means your colleagues can see your face in full HD glory. (This design, featuring a big display, is similar to the Beam from Suitable Technologies and its predecessor, the Texai).

That said, having tested a bunch of telepresence robots, I can tell you that not everything works as advertised when you unleash these robots in the real world. A big display may mean great video experience, but it also creates a lot of vibration when the robot is moving (you can see that happening in some scenes in the video below). And HD video quality is great when you have enough bandwidth; when network limitations exist, the video can get grainy and choppy.

Hopefully Ava 500 can overcome these and other issues, including one that I think is the biggest challenge for remote presence robots: connectivity. During my tests with different 'bots, the greatest problem by far was the fact that, very frequently, the robot would lose connection to the Wi-Fi access points. Sure, that's not a problem of the robot alone; it depends on Wi-Fi coverage as well. Still, the robots I tested were not able to find their way out of Wi-Fi blind spots and would simply disconnect and sit there idly.

That was very frustrating when it happened during a conversation or when I was driving to a meeting. Having to call a coworker to carry the robot to another location totally defeats the purpose of having a robotic proxy. A robot that needs a human helper at its side? My guess is Ava 500, with its autonomous navigation capability, is well positioned to handle such connectivity issues better than other robots; it could just drive itself until it regained Wi-Fi connectivity, for example. When the robot becomes available, I'll try to get one here at the IEEE Spectrum offices to do a detailed test drive.

[ iRobot Ava 500 ]

Updated 1:39 p.m. EST: I was typing too fast and mistakenly wrote the robot would be available "early next week;" it will actually be available early next year. Sorry for the error.

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