Korean company Grandport is showing off their really neat Skyschool i-robo robot course kits. There are Beginner, Junior, Senior, and Expert courses, with a few levels within each. Each level has twelve weeks' worth of 90 minute exercises using the kit of parts and a textbook. The courses start with basic mechanism assembly and circuit board use and a proprietary GUI-based programming, and later incorporate Microsoft Robotics Studio integration, sensors, and navigation. The kits can include ultrasonic or IR sensors, Bluetooth modules, and several different types of motors.
Here's a picture of one of the models they had on display. Most of the kits are good for 10-11 different types of models.
Toys and vacuums are old news; the big new robots this year seem to be telepresence robots. iRobot, Wowwee, and Spykee all brought their new internet-controlled devices to demo video, audio, VoIP, Bluetooth, media players, and other capabilities.
Spykee was introduced at Digital Life last fall and it's already got a group of siblings. Designed by Meccano, the same company that produces the Erector set, all the Spykee versions come as a kit that has to be assembled. The original can be internet controlled from anywhere in the world and can be used for making and receiving Skype VoIP calls as well as playing digital media. Spykee Cell, a smaller version, uses Bluetooth to communicate with your cell phone and can control your iPod Nano or iPod Touch. Since it uses the Bluetooth connection with your cell phone, you can basically use it as a Bluetooth "headset" -- leave your phone on the desk and talk directly to your robot instead.
Wowwee's Rovio looks like a black UFO on Wowwee's popular new omni wheels. Controlled over the Internet, It has the standard camera, two-way speaker and microphone, and video link. What I think is most interesting about Rovio is that it uses Evolution Robotics's NorthStar navigation system to find its way around its environment to return to its docking station whenever it needs recharging. That's a really good partnership between those two companies.
iRobot had its ConnectR telepresence robot on display, though it wasn't being demoed. They are still in the process of identifying beta users for its pilot program that will help them determine what ConnectR will be used for and what features should be developed before the final release. Right now they think the major users will be the "sandwich generation" (middle-aged people taking care of both kids and elderly parents) who want to be able to check up on family members when they can't be physically present, and parents on business travel who want to call home in a more interactive manner.
Is telepresence really the next big thing? Wowwee and Spykee are pitching these robots as toys that kids will want to guard their rooms, play music, and spy on siblings; iRobot 's ConnectR is being pitched to a much older audience but is still waiting for a pilot program to tell them how this technology will really be used. Are these companies guessing right?
I've long been a little skeptical of Wowwee, makers of the Robosapien. Their black and white toys seemed rather basic and the little dog I have didn't appear to be much advanced beyond the walking and mooing cow I had when I was a toddler (my first robot. It annoyed my parents so much they removed the batteries and told me it died. I've never gotten over it). Frankly, they just seemed boring.
I am very pleased to report that I have been proven wrong. Wowwee's next generation of robot toys on display here at CES are, in a word, awesome.
My favorite is Robosapien's newly developed girlfriend, the Femisapien.
Finally, I can have my own hardsuit! Femisapien is a biped with a handful of obstacle avoidance sensors and a number of switches in her arms and head that allow the user to program her for different movements. Five different motors allow a range of motion in the arms, legs, and hips, in a surprisingly graceful dance-like gait. She also has sound response and when with other Femisapiens or Robosapiens, she can respond in different ways. Running on 6AA batteries you get about 10 hours of active life or 36 hours of "pose" mode; the lack of a rechargeable battery is a little annoying, but the tradeoff is in the price -- when she's released in September, she'll retail for $99. Not bad. Have a look at this video of three dancing Femisapiens:
Next up is Rex the Dog, the long-lost distanct cousin of the Sony AIBO. Rex is a "junkyard dog" made of scraps, and as a result he can get a little crazy. Rex is meant to be an interactive toy, so it can jump in to different types of moods -- happy, sad, angry, "breakdown", and even one mode where it gets confused and thinks it's a cat and starts meowing. 14 motors in the dog's face change its expression and control "slot machine" eyes that spin to different icons to reveal Rex's current mood. Rex tools around with two front paws and back wheels and seems to be very friendly. Of all the new robots Wowwee has here, Rex will be out the soonest -- this spring -- for $149.
Then there are the robot siblings: Tribot and Mr. Personality. Both robots have an omni drive permitting holomonic motion in all directions and there's a lot of speed in the drive train, similar to an RC car -- that's a big change from the slow walking of the Robosapien. Tribot is for young kids; he's bright red and is described as a "cartoon character" and "a kid come to life." He has about ten minutes total of content that he splits up as commentary and conversation with his owner. There's an guard mode for a young owner to protect his or her bedroom from unwanted visitors as well as an alarm clock with no snooze button -- you have to get out of bed and catch Tribot to turn him off. A handful of interactive games that are programmed in are meant to keep kids entertained.
Tribot's older brother, Mr. Personality, has an LCD screen face and more than 90
minutes of content. Mr. Personality tells jokes, stories, and offers sarcastic commentary on your activities (get home at 3 am? He'll ask you where you've been so late). When you get bored of his bad jokes, other personalities will be downloadable from Wowwee's website and can be loaded onto an SD card inserted into Mr. Personality's head. Like Femisapien, Tribot and Mr. Personality rely on replaceable batteries, but Mr. Personality can also be plugged into the wall. The idea is that you should never have to turn him off; just put him on a shelf plugged in and he'll wait for the next time you want some entertainment. I can see this guy being popular at fraternities.
Tribot will set you back $99 and Mr. Personality will be $249, both coming this September.
These are just really exciting. They're all incredibly different and do more than just walk around; they're much more interactive than the older robots and are more exciting to look at. With LCD screens faces, slot machine eyeballs, and graceful movement, these are things even *I* want to play with. And this is not to mention that the neat drive trains, obstacle avoidance sensors, and ability to communicate with similar toys in the vicinity make them much more obviously related to the big expensive bots that are out there. These really do seem like robots, and I'm pleased that Wowwee is working so hard to get more robots into the hands of average people.
This is my first time at CES, and all I can say is, wow. This is the most overwhelming event I've ever been to. It's like being at Disney World but with more booth babes than princesses. Gadgets are everywhere, the audio systems' bass demonstrations are headache-inducing, and anything that could possibly move is doing so in booths, in the aisles, and sometimes even illicitly overhead.
Robotics Trends organized most of the attending robotics companies into one "Tech Zone" at the Venetian Sands expo hall. This area is right next to the Sandbox zone, an area full of companies that develop high-tech toys, and there's actually a lot of overlap. In addition to this area a handful of automation systems are sprinkled throughout the rest of the show and Bumblebee made an appearance at the Dolby booth in the Convention Center.
I've been spending a lot of time with the robotics companies and there is some seriously exciting stuff here. Stay tuned!
I'll be traveling to CES in Las Vegas to check out the robots this week. I have a few appointments with some of the companies boothing at the event to see what they're up to, and I'll be updating as often as I have time and Internet access. Can't make the show, but still want to hear about a particular demo, keynote, or display? Leave a comment to let me know what to check out and report back on!
Saturday morning I attended the official kickoff of the 2008 FIRST Robotics Competition season. The big reveal of the 2008 game in Manchester, NH marks the beginning of 6.5 weeks of stress, sleep deprivation, and a lot of Mountain Dew for high school students all over the US and in countries like Israel, the UK, and Brazil.
FIRST is the brainchild of iBot and Segway inventor Dean Kamen, and started as a high school competition in a New Hampshire gymnasium. It has now grown to encompass not only tens of thousands of high school students but also middle school and elementary school students around the world through FIRST Tech Challenge, FIRST LEGO League, and Junior FIRST LEGO League. Each division has a separate season, regional competitions, and championships.
The game this year is called Overdrive. Six teams (three teams on each of two alliances) are on the field at once with their roughly 34" x 34" x 72", 120 lb robots, and must complete laps around a small track while herding a 40" diameter, 10 lb inflated "Trackball" across a finish line. Points are scored for laps completed, times the Trackball crosses a team's finish line on the ground, times it crosses the line by being "hurdled" over a 6' high overpass, and for teams who manage to balance their Trackballs on the overpass before the two minutes of the round times out. Each year the game is different, and each year a new technical challenge comes up: this year, instead of the standard 15 seconds of completely autonomous operation and subsequent 120 seconds of teleoperation, the 15 second autonomous round may be replaced by a hybrid supervisory control mode, where the robots are largely autonomous but may be retasked by a human player using an infrared remote control on the side of the field. A short animation explaining the game can be found on the NASA robotics website.
Teams receive their kit of parts today, which they can augment further using a limited budget. In late February the robots will be shipped off to regional competitions around the country (as well as in Israel and Brazil) where they will meet in competition with other teams' creations. Winners of the regionals and of several important team awards will go on to the Championship at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.
FIRST is a great way to show high school students how cool robots can be, but it does a fantastic job of achieving its real mission: inspiring students to get excited about and pursue science and engineering. FIRST has academic and industry partners who offer a combined $9M in scholarships every year to the more than 35,000 students who participate in the program and a study from Brandeis University has shown how effective FIRST is in increasing graduation rates, increasing college attendance rates, and increasing the number of students pursuing science and engineering at schools that have formed teams. As the various politicians who attended Saturday's kickoff noted, programs like FIRST are critical to maintaining US competitiveness in the global market for science and innovation.
While it's too late to start a new team for the year -- team registration usually happens in September or October -- it's not too late to get involved as a mentor for these students or as a volunteer at one of the competitions. Find out what's going on in your area!
This sampling merely scratches the surface of the past year's advances in robotics that whet the appetite for what's to come: Early next year, for instance, researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder will benchmark robotic devices to precisely mix and measure medications used in treatments such as chemotherapy. The robotic Mars rovers Opportunity and Spirit are currently hunkering down in anticipation of the harsh Martian winter season but will soon resume their exploration of the Red Planet. And Scandanavian research firm Sintef is developing artificially intelligent equipment to help offshore oil and gas drilling platforms run more safely and efficiently.
I've decided to give naming a "Top 3 of 2007" a shot and held a long debate - mostly with myself as I will admit - to pick my personal favorites. My kinds of robots are not those on the factory floors, but those you and I can see and interact with out on the streets, in offices or in our homes. And after some consideration, all the new humanoids didn't make my list - they may have the greatest potential, but I think they are still very far from being useful beyond amusement and are simply way too expensive. Here are the 3 that did make my list of favorite robots in 2007:
3. BeatBot's Keepon
The toy robot Keepon developed by the BeatBots project, Keepon dances to music (make sure to check out the video). Similar to last year's hilarious Tickle Me Elmo robot, Keepon is based on a simple idea, a simple design, but is fantastically well done. Somebody please tell me why they won't sell it!
2. Ugobe's Pleo
Another toy â'' but hey, thatâ''s where consumer robotics stands in 2007. But the Pleo is an exceptionally cool toy: The baby dino uses an impressive sensor suite in combination with an AI that allows it to develop distinct personalities according to user interactions. Pleo performs a large range of actions, including trembling in fear, wagging its tail and dancing with happiness, playing dead and sneezing - and you can train it! With the long awaited Pleo, the people at Ugobe have reached a new level of user interaction and - as some people claim - intelligence for a robot toy.
1. The DARPA Urban Challenge Robots
For me the title for robot of the year 2007 goes to the winners of the Urban Challenge. Winners, because three robots performed exceptionally well: Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing robot Boss, Stanford racing team's Junior and Virginia Tech's Victor Tango. Although their times in the race differed, all three robots far exceeded expectations. And thinking back to the first Grand Challenge in 2004, it is truly unbelievable how far robot technology has advanced in this field.
Miss a robot in the list? Disagree with my judgment? Or ready to compile your own top 3, 4, 5, ... 10? Feel free to post your comments!
The United States Department of Defense has released its roadmap through 2032 (link to actual report at the bottom of the page; large PDF warning) for unmanned systems in the military. For this first time, this report includes not only unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) but also unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned underwater and surface vehicles (UUVs and USVs); previous reports had focused primarily on UGVs.
This is a very long but pretty fascinating read, particularly the president's budget through 2013 for funding in the three areas (section 2.4). It's really interesting to see that the UGVs like PackBots and Talons seem to be way ahead of other unmanned systems, with the R&D budget drastically decreasing over the next several years as the procurement budget skyrockets. The UAVs and UUVs, on the other hand, will still have a lot of R&D money pumped into them over the next several years. UAVs seem to be most popular with the highest overall procurement budget.
The report also goes into a nice explanation of the Dull/Dirty/Dangerous mantra that is so popular with American robotics development:
For the dull, allows the ability to give operators normal mission cycles and crew rest.
For the dirty, increases the probability of a successful mission and minimizes human
For the dangerous, lowers the political and human cost if the mission is lost.
Lower downside risk and higher confidence in mission success are two strong motivators for continued expansion of unmanned systems across a broad spectrum of warfighting and peacetime missions.
There's also some good stuff on standardization and interoperability within the industries, including things like message format and processor speed. This will be good reading for the CTOs and budding entrepreneurs out there.