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Vgo Telepresence Robot

In what may be (but probably isn’t) just a coincidence, a third telepresence robot has made a (pre) commercial appearance in as many weeks. This robot is called Vgo, and… Well, it does telepresence. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but you get on your computer on one end, connect to the robot, and then drive it around while looking through its cameras. Sensors keep you from running into stuff or falling down stairs, and it’ll run all day on one battery charge. The biggest news, at this point, is that the Vgo is only supposed to cost $5000. Plus a mandatory support contract of $1200 a year. So, $6000.

The Boston Globe has a nice piece on Vgo… There aren’t many more technical details, but I did find this interesting:

Two analysts I spoke with differed on the potential for robotic videoconferencing. Rob Enderle, a technology analyst at the Enderle Group who has written about the slow spread of traditional videoconferencing systems, said that “the closer we get to simulating being there, the better an alternative to travel it will become.’’

But Dan Kara, president of the publishing company Robotics Trends in Framingham, said, “I’m not quite sold on mobile telepresence. How is it that much better than having someone at the remote site carry around a netbook computer with a free copy of Skype on it?’’

The whole minion+laptop+Skype thing is exactly the point we made back when Anybots’ QA was introduced at CES for $30k. Obviously, a telepresence robot is much better than minion+laptop+Skype, but the question is, is it really that much better in terms of cost effectiveness? At the $6k price point, perhaps. Or maybe that’s not the question… Maybe the question should be, how much hardware is required to simulate being somewhere else to the extent that is necessary to make paying for a robotic telepresence solution a practical idea? I don’t have the answer, but hopefully the consumer market will, now that there are (or soon will be) three different telepresence robots available for people to purchase.

[ Vgo ] via [ Boston Globe ] via [ Texasalpha ]

iRobot Demonstrates New Weaponized Robot

UPDATE: Some readers argued that the APOBS, or Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System, developed in a joint program of the U.S. Army and Navy, is not, technically, a weapon, because it's not an anti-personnel system but rather a system used against obstacles. Perry Villanueva, the project engineer for the APOBS program on the Army side, says the APOBS "is not a weapon in the traditional sense, but it is a weapon." Other readers wondered how the rocket compensates for things like wind. Villanueva says that is more of an operational issue. "With high winds it is up to the soldier to position it so it will have a high probability of landing on its target."

iRobot released today new video of its Warrior robot, a beefed-up version of the more well-known PackBot, demonstrating use of the APOBS, or Anti-Personnel Obstacle Breaching System, an explosive line charge towed by a rocket, with a small parachute holding back the end of the line. The APOBS, iRobot says, is designed for "deliberate breaching of anti-personnel minefields and multi-strand wire obstacles." It can clear a path 45 meters long and 0.6 meters wide.

iRobot worked with the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division (NAWCWD), the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center (TARDEC), and the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific Experimentation Center (MEC) for this demonstration. It took place in November 2009 at the Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California's Mojave Desert.

Although it may concern those who don't like the arming of robots, it makes great eye candy for those who like robots, rockets, and explosions.

Now, let me say this: I am neither condoning nor condemning the weaponization of robots, just stating the facts that I am aware of.

In early 2009 a handful of defense related companies came to Thailand to demonstrate their latest war toys to the local generals. One of those companies was iRobot, and as I have many friends who work for iRobot and I was living in Bangkok at that time, I got to meet up with them to see one of the toys they brought: a Warrior.

At the time, the Warrior hardware was complete, designed to carry 150 pounds, but I've seen it lift people standing on it. Unfortunately, and understandably, many of my questions about it were answered with "we aren't sure we are allowed to answer that." I couldn't get an answer as to how much it would cost, but I was given the impression that it's more than $100,000 per unit.

Back in the day, the founders of iRobot had been against the weaponization of robots. Perhaps business and financial pressures are pushing the boundaries. Indeed, the military market is becoming ever more important, according to the company's first quarter results. Finances were very tight in 2009, so iRobot probably sees military systems as a market they'll have to explore and expand.

Updated by Erico Guizzo, June 1, 2010 : Added details on APOBS; edited comments on iRobot financials and weaponized robots. June 2: Added details on demonstration participants, date, and place. June 3: Added more details on APOBS.

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Aggressive Quadrotor Maneuvers Are Totally Nuts

uav drone grasp lab

Every once in a while, we get to see a video of a robot doing something that makes us think "OMG WTF THAT’S WICKED CRAZY IMPOSSIBLE!!!" And then, we remember that crazy stuff is entirely possible, because we’re talking about robots, and we have to stop thinking about what is and is not possible in terms of human capabilities.

This is one of those videos:

I don’t have much more info for you than what’s in the video, unfortunately, but it does look like these maneuvers (while obviously autonomous) are currently restricted to an area with a whoooole bunch of sensors that can tell the robot where it is with an accuracy (and frequency) that’s probably pretty impressive.

If you remember, we’ve seen both autonomous acrobatics and autonomous landing on slopes by UAVs, but nothing like this… The precision of these maneuvers is just totally completely nuts.

[ GRASP Lab ] via [ DIY Drones ]

Willow Garage's PR2 Robots Graduate

It's graduation season, and yesterday Willow Garage, a start-up dedicated to accelerating the development of personal robots, sent its first graduation class of PR2s off into the world. These 11 robots are heading out to universities and labs in Germany, Japan, Belgium, and the United States, where they will help researchers figure out how robots can assist the elderly and the autistic, navigate buildings and open doors, and help people do house chores, to name just a few of the many projects in the works. At the graduation party in Menlo Park, Calif., some of the researchers told IEEE Spectrum about their plans for these robots. And then it was time to celebrate.

And here's Willow Garage showing off the PR2 at a pre-party press conference. The video was recorded by Spectrum's Erico Guizzo, who was embodied as a Texai, a telepresence robot also created by Willow:

How I Became a Texai Robot and Went Partying

willow garage texas texai telepresence robotI couldn't make it to Willow Garage's PR2 robot launch party last night, so I went as a robot.

While some 400 people dragged their physical bodies to the event in Menlo Park, Calif., I sat in my living room in Brooklyn, N.Y., and uploaded myself into a robot surrogate.

Using this telepresence robot, called Texai, I was able to move around, see and talk to Willowites and guests, and sip WD-40 cocktails. Just kiddin'. No drinks for robots.

Two Willow engineers built the first Texai prototype just for fun, using spare parts they found in the office. The robot proved so useful it became an official project at Willow, which has built 25 of them.

This was the second time this month I've embodied a robot, which convinces me humanlike androids and robotic surrogacy will become a reality sooner than we think.

But the star of the night, and the reason for the party, was another robot, Willow's PR2. Or more precisely, the 11 PR2s that Willow is giving away to institutions all over the world to speed up research in personal robotics.

The PR2 is a mobile robot with advanced vision and manipulation capabilities. Each costs several hundred thousand dollars. But what makes the robot stand out is its software: the Robot Operating System, or ROS, a powerful, open source robotics platform that Willow is building.


Eric Berger (left) and Keenan Wyrobek of Willow Garage show off the PR2 robot. I attended the event via a telepresence robot (that's my face on the bottom left corner).

My colleague Tekla Perry, who was also at the event (in her physical body), interviewed several PR2 recipients and will be posting videos.

For me the most interesting part was being a Texai for a night.

The robot's head is a standard flat-screen monitor, fixed atop a long metal pole. The Texai uses a wheel system similar to the PR2's. And it also runs ROS, which handles the motor controllers and teleoperation functions.

People I talked to via the robot really wanted to know how the driving works. The Texai uses Skype to establish a two-way video link, and a Web page shows a simple, intuitive control interface [below].

willow garage texas texai controller robot

You just use the mouse to hold and drag a little red ball and the robot moves. You can also make the head camera point in different directions, or switch to an auxiliary camera that shows the robot's wheels, to help while navigating through furniture and feet.

Learning how to drive is easy. But safety first! Willow makes new Texai users watch a video showing all the things you should not do with the robot -- drive down a stairway, let children ride on it, stick a screwdriver into its body.

At first my driving was in grandma-mode. But after a few minutes I felt comfortable to drive faster and fearless. You can move in any direction, slowly or rapidly, as well as rotate on your vertical axis.

The robot has a plastic bumper, so it won't damage walls, furniture, or a person's leg, for that matter. I did manage, though, to get myself stuck against a wall.

"May I help you?" said Sanford Dickert, my driving instructor and escort at Willow [see photo at the beginning of this post]. Yes, please! He nudged me -- well, the robot -- and off I went.

I headed out to the EE lab to talk to Dallas Goecker, a Willow electrical engineer living in Indiana who, along with Curt Meyers, built the first Texai prototype. Goecker, as he does every workday, was present as a Texai.

So there we were: Two Texai talking to each other screen to screen.


Dallas Goecker, Texai co-creator, and I (inset, bottom left) meet face to face -- or screen to screen.

Goecker told me that being a robot became so natural for him that he sometimes can't recall whether he did something -- a discussion with a coworker, say -- as a person or as a robot.

So what is WIllow going to do with their 25 Texai? They're not selling them. So far they're doing some field tests at undisclosed sites and collecting feedback.

For a company focused on open source projects, I find they're a bit secretive about the Texai. My guess is the robot has commercial possibilities that they want to explore. Especially when you have a Google CEO showing it off at parties.

Or maybe they'll just give the robots away for free.

After the press conference, the party was to continue at a tent outside the building. I was told there was just one robot for reporters. John Markoff was in it and he was not getting out. Damn you New York Times!

Oh, well. I hung out inside with other guests and my Texai brothers. It was fun. The highlight was meeting people I'd been spoken via e-mail or on Twitter but had never met in person: BotJunkie's Evan Ackerman, GetRobot's Noriko Kageki, and Hizook's Travis Deyle -- some of the world's top robotics bloggers!

I even met some celebrities. As a huge MythBusters fan, it was great to chat with Tory Belleci, who for some reason wouldn't stop laughing at me, or the robot, or both [below].

My robotic existence wasn't perfect. More than once people had their backs facing me, though unintentionally, thinking I was just a piece of high-tech furniture. Other people felt clearly uncomfortable with a talking monitor and pretended I wasn't there.

Sometimes I couldn't hear people and vice versa. Twice I lost connection and had to log on again. And once my video feed froze and my face, I was later told, became a Francis Bacon portrait.

But overall it was a great experience. In the future, I see no reason why people wouldn't rely heavily on telepresence robots to attend meetings, interact with coworkers, and -- why not -- go partying.

More images:

willow garage texas texai robot

Robots: The Nao Humanoid

Aldebaran's Nao robot

In its latest episode, Robots, the podcast for news and views on robotics, takes a closer look at French robotics company Aldebaran and its humanoid Nao. Aldebaran's Vice President in Engineering Luc Degaudenzi and his colleague Cédric Vaudel, who is Aldebaran's Sales Manager for North America, discuss the Nao's success in the RoboCup Standard Platform League, share details on the robot and outline how they see the future of the market for humanoids. Read on or tune in!

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Microsoft Shifts Robotics Strategy, Makes Robotics Studio Available Free

Updated May 20, 4:23 p.m.: Added National Instruments comments; 5:49 p.m.: Added Willow Garage comments; May 21, 11:21 a.m.: Added details on competing robotics software platforms; 1:50 p.m. Added Herman Bruyninckx comments.

microsoft robotics developer studio
Microsoft's new and now free release of its Robotics Developer Studio includes new 3-D simulation environments like this multi-level house.

Over the past year or so, Microsoft's robotics group has been working quietly, very quietly. That's because, among other things, they were busy planning a significant strategy shift.

Microsoft is upping the ante on its robotics ambitions by announcing today that its Robotics Developer Studio, or RDS, a big package of programming and simulation tools, is now available to anyone for free.

Previously, RDS had multiple releases: one free but with limited features, a full commercial version that users could purchase, and an academic version distributed only to partners.

By releasing a single version with full capabilities and at no cost, Microsoft wants to expand its RDS user base, hoping to amass a legion of hobbyists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and other robot enthusiasts who will come up with the next big things in consumer robotics.

I spoke about the new plan with Stathis Papaefstathiou, who leads the robotics group and is responsible for Microsoft’s robotics strategy and business model.

"We decided to take out all of the barriers that today our users might have in order to help them build these new [robotic] technologies," he told me.

Papaefstathiou (pronounced papa-ef-sta-THI-u) says that price is a big limitation for mass produced robots. "That means that in the consumer space it's not about sophisticated hardware, it's about the software stack."

He says RDS has been downloaded half a million times since it launched in 2007. The company estimates it has about 60,000 active users.

Those are respectable numbers but they didn't help Microsoft fulfill its goal of kick-starting a vast and lucrative robotics development ecosystem -- like MS-DOS and Windows did for the PC.

So over the past two years the robotics group, which is part of of an elite software division called Startup Business Group led by Amit Mital, who reports to Craig Mundie, set about devising a plan to expand Microsoft's stake in robotics.

Not everyone is convinced the new plan makes sense.

"This is all just a non-event," says Herman Bruyninckx, a robotics professor at K.U. Leuven in Belgium and coordinator of EURON, the European Robotics Research Network.

Bruyninckx, an advocate of free and open source software who started OROCOS, or Open Robot Control Software, a framework for robot control, says that making RDS free is not a change in strategy and nobody he knows in the robotics community is "talking about RDS, let alone using or planning to use it."

Papaefstathiou says that in addition to creating a single RDS release, Microsoft is also making the source code of selected program samples and other modules available online, hoping to improve collaboration among users. In particular, the group wants to entice the growing community of hobbyists, do-it-yourselfers, and weekend robot builders.

He also says there will be closer collaboration with other projects at Microsoft. He mentions Project Natal, a motion tracking user interface that Microsoft is creating for the Xbox 360. He says Natal's ability to track gestures could "be available also in solutions where human-robot interaction becomes important."

Will the new strategy work?

microsoft robotics developer studio
A factory model is now part of Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio's simulation environments.

RDS is not a robot operating system -- it's a comprehensive set of development tools, samples, and tutorials. It includes a visual programming interface, a popular 3-D simulator, and also Microsoft's CCR and DSS runtime toolkit.

But despite its broad range of tools, RDS works best with the specific robot platforms it supports, including iRobot's Create, LEGO Mindstorms, CoroWare, Parallax, and others.

These are great robot platforms but by no means the only ones. In fact, many budding roboticists today are using Arduinos and programming ATmega microcontrollers to build innovative robots. Why would they need RDS?

Microsoft has plenty of competition as well. Other robotics software platforms include Urbi by French firm Gostai, ERSP by Evolution Robotics, and the Player/Stage Project.

One platform that is rapidly gaining adoption and has shown impressive results is the Robot Operating System, or ROS, a broad set of open source tools by Silicon Valley robotics firm Willow Garage.

Other users, including a growing number of high school students participating in the popular FIRST robotics competition, use National Instruments' LabVIEW tools and controllers to program their robots.

Papaefstathiou acknowledges that there are alternative software packages that can do some of the things -- visual programming and simulation, for example -- that RDS does, but he insists that "there's no single competitor for the overall toolset that we have."

As for Willow Garage, Papaefstathiou says they're "targeting different platforms and different capabilities," adding that some of the robots they're using are half million dollar systems.

"People are doing a great job in developing robotics technology there, but this is not something that goes into scale," he says. "And we here in Microsoft we are about scale."

Not surprisingly, Willow Garage disagrees.

"We designed ROS to be flexible and open, because researchers and application developers alike need to be able to inspect, improve, and extend the system," says Brian Gerkey, Willow Garage's director of open source development. "As a result, ROS is now used on a wide variety of robots, from inexpensive iRobot Creates to sophisticated humanoids and even autonomous cars. It's only through open source that we can reach this level of adoption and community involvement."

National Instruments, for its part, welcomes Microsoft's move.

"I'm glad to see that National Instruments, Microsoft, Willow Garage and other major players are aligned on a critical missing element to the robotics industry crossing the chasm and really taking off," says Shelley Gretlein, senior group manager of NI's real-time and embedded software. "The key is in the development software. Lowering the software barriers will make it easy to get into robotics."

Microsoft established the robotics group in 2007 under the leadership of Tandy Trower, a software veteran who'd headed some of Microsoft's largest and most successful businesses, eventually becoming a minister-without-portfolio reporting directly to Bill Gates.

Trower and Gates believed the consumer market was the right place for the next biggest innovation in robotics, finding parallels with the beginnings of the PC industry, a view Gates described in a now-famous Scientific American article, "A Robot in Every Home."

But things changed late last year when Trower left Microsoft to start a healthcare robotics company. The company chose Papaefstathiou, an unashamed Trekkie -- "Data is very inspirational" --  with a background in high-performance computing, as the robotics group's new leader. It's up to him now to turn Gates' a-robot-in-very-home vision into reality.

I do see potential for a big expansion of RDS. But my impression is that it will be strongest among schools and universities. Now any engineering school in, say, Brazil, Russia, India or China, could use it and have students programming robots, or at least simulating them.

The question is, Will promising, cool robotics products for the consumer market emerge from a larger RDS community? I asked Papaefstathiou what kinds of commercial robots he envisions would be around.

He wouldn't give me specific examples, preferring to say it was up to "the community to think broader about the scenarios."

"Consumer robotics is a new product category and building [applications] there requires leveraging the capabilities and inspiration of a broader community," he says. "This is exactly what we want to do.”


Microsoft's robotics squad. Left to right: Stathis Papaefstathiou (general manager), Russ Sanchez (creative director), Branch Hendrix (business development), Stewart MacLeod (development), Hunter Hudson (quality), Mukunda Murthy (program management), George Chrysanthakopoulos (distinguished engineer), and Chris Tham (engineering).

Images: Microsoft Robotics Group

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The Conference Room That Re-Arranges Itself

You can add a new entry to the long list of problems that can be solved by robots: arranging tables in a conference room. On my personal workplace hassle scale, I'm not sure that moving conference room furniture ranks much above "occasional nuisance." But Yukiko Sawada and Takashi Tsubouchi at the University of Tsukuba, Japan, evidently find shoving tables to be an unappealing task for humans. So they built a room that could re-arrange itself.

In this case, the tables are the robots. Select the arrangement you want from a graphical interface, and the tables will move to their new locations. The movement is monitored by an overhead camera with a fish-eye lens, and the software uses a trial-and-error approach to determine the best sequence of motion. But it's best to see the room in action for yourself. Check out the video the researchers presented at ICRA earlier this month.

In the paper, the authors explained the rationale for the project:

In these days, at conference rooms or event sites, people arrange tables to desired positions suitable for the event. If this work could be performed autonomously, it would cut down the man power and time needed. Furthermore, if it is linked to the Internet reservation system of the conference room, it would be able to arrange the tables to an arbitrary configuration by the desired time.

I'm not sure the cost and complexity of such a system could ever be low enough to be practical, but there's definitely something fun about watching the tables reconfigure themselves. And if you already have autonomous, why not go all the way and add a reconfigurable wall?

Review: Neato Robotics XV-11

The Neato Robotics XV-11 robot vacuum made its first appearance in December of last year, and we got a brief hands-on with it the following January at CES. Like the iRobot Roomba, the XV-11 is an autonomous robotic vacuum. Unlike the Roomba, the XV-11 maps the room it’s cleaning and follows an efficient pattern to minimize cleaning time. Neato says that the XV-11 is smart, fast, and powerful, and they lent us a unit for a day to test out… How’d it fare? We’ll show you, with lots of pics and a video, after the jump.

-Design

The first thing you’ll notice about the Neato XV-11 is that it has a square front, which sort of makes it look like it’s going backwards most of the time until you get used to it. The square front helps the robot clean more effectively along walls and in corners. The front also has a wrap-around bumper that actuates if it encounters an obstacle, and small sensors on the sides of the bumper help it avoid obstacles while turning. Around the back (which is the round bit, remember) is the exhaust vent for the vacuum, the charging contacts, a plug-in charging port, and a potentially exciting little USB port.

Underneath, the XV-11 is pretty straightforward. It has one single spinning brush with rubber flaps, and that’s it. There’s a little squeegee blade behind the brush, and the vacuum itself is back inside the brush compartment. Edge sensors around the front edge keep the robot from falling down stairs.

On top is a recessed latch for the dust bin, the other side of which is a recessed handle that you can use to pick the robot up. The giant orange button wakes the robot up and starts it cleaning, while you can set the rest of the options on the little LCD screen (more on that later).

The last interesting bit is, of course, the dome on top of the robot that houses the laser scanner (or distance sensor, if you prefer). There’s a laser emitter and a receiver, and they spin around inside to make a map of the room that the XV-11 is cleaning in. The laser itself has a power of 2.1mW at at a wavelength of 785nm, which is in the near-infrared, so you won’t see it. Also, it’s designated as Class 1, which means that it is safe under all conditions of normal use (for humans and pets).

The design of the charging dock is pretty clever. It’s a little bulky, but it’s flatish, so it’s minimally intrusive to set against a wall. Since the XV-11 doesn’t have to drive up on anything, it just presses against the contacts, it’s harder for it to accidentally shove the dock around. Also, part of the reason that it’s bulky is that it opens up to reveal hiding places for the power adapter and extra cord. Need more cord length? Pull some out. Need less? Stuff it back in. Very handy.

-Features

It’s a little bit difficult to discuss a list of features on a robot with a selling point of “push one button and it does everything you need it to do on its own.” But if that’s not enough for you, there are ways to avoid having to actually bend down and push that button.

The XV-11 features on-board scheduling, which lets you set different times on different days for the robot to wake itself up, clean your floor, and then go back to its dock. I set it up without reading the manual, which is the ease with which all interfaces should work. The LCD also provides status and support information, and lets you pause and resume cleaning and direct the robot to go back to its dock.

-Cleaning Technique

Cleaning technique is what makes the XV-11 so interesting. When the robot starts to clean a room, it’ll move out into the room a bit and then spin up its laser rangefinder and start to map. It looks for walls, doors, obstacles, and tries to identify areas where it needs more information. When it has some idea of how your room is laid out, it decides what route to take and begins to vacuum, continuing to map as it goes, which allows it to adapt to changes that happen while it’s cleaning (new objects on the floor, moving furniture, stuff like that).

While cleaning my living room, the XV-11 began by going around the outside of the room to where my sofas and coffee table are. It spent a bunch of time getting into all the nooks and crannies around the sofas and under the table legs, and then finished cleaning around the perimeter of the room. Finally, it covered the open space in a series of straight back and forth lines, shut off its vacuum, and made a beeline back for its dock, job done. Total time elapsed: just over 12 minutes.

While cleaning, the XV-11 appears remarkably intelligent. It moves with purpose and with a recognizable pattern. Despite its shape (which prevents it from making zero-radius turns in tight spots), the amount of information that it gets from its laser sensor, bumper, and side sensors gives it very good spatial awareness, and it didn’t get stuck once. In some cases, it took the XV-11 a little bit longer to move around complex areas like forests of chair and table legs because of its square front, but it knows what shape it is and has no trouble getting around things. It’s also low enough to fit under most furniture, and it’s pretty determined… If it thinks it can squeeze underneath something, it’ll try as hard as it can to do so.

The XV-11 has no trouble moving from room to room. When the laser sensor maps an area, it pays special attention to anything that looks like a doorway, and remembers that it needs to go through there later after cleaning the room that it’s currently in. If the robot is cleaning multiple rooms and gets low on battery, it will remember its location and the progress it made, go back to its dock and charge, and then return to where it was before and finish up.

If there are areas that you don’t want the XV-11 going into, you can keep it out by laying out a magnetic strip that the robot will vacuum up to, but not across. 15 feet is included along with the robot, and you can cut it up to suit your needs.

-Cleaning Effectiveness

We’d seen the XV-11 in operation before, but only on square pieces of carpet that don’t accurately reflect what most people’s homes look like. My living room, on the other hand, features hardwood, deep carpet, shallow carpet, tables, chairs, cords on the floor, and the occasional cat. In other words, it’s a pretty typical living room, full of complications and potential hazards.

The XV-11 had no trouble with any of these things… In fact, it managed not to get stuck at all, which bodes well for its overall autonomous intelligence and robustness. The robot took just over twelve minutes to clean my living room, and it clocked nearly exactly the same time each time it cleaned. This is interesting, because it implies that the robot is calculating an efficient way to clean the room, and then recalculating a similar efficient pattern each time it cleans. Here’s what the pattern looks like:

It’s pretty easy to see what Neato is talking about here when they say that their robot cleans efficiently and in straight lines, because that’s what it does. Most of the floor, the robot covers exactly once. In more complex areas, it spends more time, but that’s less about inefficiency and more about just moving around. I mean, the robot shuts itself off before it returns to its charging base, because it knows that the floor has been entirely covered and it doesn’t need to waste energy keeping the vacuum turned on while it goes back home.

Since the XV-11 covers most area of the floor only once, it’s important that it cleans effectively. And for the most part, it very much does. Compared to an upright vacuum, the robot did just as well or better on hardwood, and comparably on carpet. There were only two circumstances in which the XV-11 didn’t clean especially well, both illustrated in this picture:

Issue one is the dirt around the coffee table leg. While cleaning, the robot was able to consistently get pretty close to the leg itself, but its square front didn’t help it clean more effectively there. The problem might be that no matter how close the robot can get itself to the table leg, there’s a limit to how effective it can clean there since the brush and vacuum don’t extend the full width of the robot. The same is true (in general) for cleaning along walls and in corners… Due to the design of the robot, there are some areas where the vacuum just can’t reach no matter how close the robot gets. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that this is the same for upright vacuums as well, which is why they come with hose attachments and stuff.

The other issue is that the XV-11 isn’t that great at getting cat hair out of carpet. It gets most of it, but for particularly tenacious hair, the rubber brush isn’t as effective as a bristle brush might be.

As far as cleaning along walls and getting into corners, while the XV-11 is shaped better for these tasks, it doesn’t always make it into a corner in its most effective orientation. For example, if the robot is following a wall on its right side and encounters a recessed doorway, it will turn into the doorway and follow closely along the door but misses the corner to its right where it first turns in. I’m being pretty picky about this, but it’s worth mentioning.

-Maintenance

While the XV-11 might have some minor issues picking up pet hair, the upside is that after three runs around my living room (shared by three cats), here’s what the XV-11’s brush looked like:

And it’s not like it wasn’t picking stuff up, either:

To clean out the dust bin, you just lift it out of the top of the robot. To actually get the dust out, you have to remove the air filter (it snaps in and out), but this is actually kinda nice, since the dust bin stays closed until you get it to a place where you can dump it. Since brush maintenance seems to be minimal, emptying the dust bin is basically all you need to worry about on a regular basis.

If you do need to clean out the brush area, it’s easy. The bottom panel releases with two clips, and you can pull the brush right out. It’s belt driven, which is kinda cool, and reinstalling it is as simple as sliding it back under the belt again.

And that’s pretty much it. Conceivably, you’ll need to replace the air filter and possibly the brush or squeegee, and eventually, the batteries will wear out. All of these bits are available on Neato’s website for prices that are sort of reasonable, as long as you don’t need to do it too often.

-Conclusion

Overall, the Neato XV-11 cleans fast and efficiently. It has some minor issues with a few specific aspects of how it cleans, but I feel like there is a great deal of potential with this robot. This is not to say that the XV-11 isn’t already impressive… It’s more like, there are lots of way that the robot could potentially be tweaked to make it even better at what it’s already good at, especially considering the amount of information (and level of detail) that its sensors collect.

For example, if the XV-11 can recognize a closed door, maybe its algorithm could be slightly modified to make an extra pass across the door from the opposite direction to be sure to get both corners. What I’m really hoping is that at some point, Neato will allow the users of its robots to plug into that USB port to take advantage of the XV-11’s impressive suite of sensors and modify its behavior themselves. Have some issue with the way your robot cleans? No problem, tweak it yourself, or download another user’s software over the internet.

On the hardware side, putting some bristles on the brush might make the XV-11 better at getting pet hair out of carpet, but might also make the brush more of a chore to clean out. Still, if Neato offered it as an option, then pet owners could decide whether or not they’d like to have less pet hair on their carpet and more tangles in their robot’s brush.

I wouldn’t worry too much about these quibbles, however… I believe that just as iRobot has, Neato will listen to their users and make upgrades and improvements based on real world feedback, and there’s no reason not to get one of the first generation XV-11s if you feel that its cleaning technique is right for you.

The Neato XV-11 is on pre-order for $399, to be available “this summer.” This makes it $50 more expensive than the Roomba 560 that we looked at yesterday, and $50 cheaper than the Roomba 570, which is (for all practical purposes) the highest end Roomba model. Tomorrow, we’ll compare them more directly, but the point is that XV-11 is quite comparable to Roombas with similar capabilities in terms of price, meaning that if you’re considering a robot vacuum, the XV-11 should definitely be on your list.

[ Neato Robotics XV-11 ]

Anybots QB Telepresence Robot Lets You Be At the Office ... Without Being There

anybots qb

Meet QB. This skinny alien-looking robot may soon replace you at work.

But don’t worry. It doesn’t want your job. QB is a robotic stand-in for workers. You control it remotely as a videoconference system on wheels. Embodied as a QB, you can attend meetings, drop by a coworker’s office, even confab at the water cooler.

You can control your robotic self from anywhere using a computer connected to the Net. It’s a bit like the recent Bruce Willis movie Surrogates. Except QB is less, uh, muscular.

Anybots, a robotics start-up in Mountain View, Calif., is officially unveiling the telepresence robot today. QB will be available in the fall for US $15,000.

"We wanted to create a technology that allows remote workers to collaborate more fully -- and feel part of the team," founder and CEO Trevor Blackwell told me when we spoke a few weeks ago.

What they created is a sophisticated mobile robot. Its base houses a compact computer, two Wi-Fi interfaces, a LIDAR-based collision-detection system, powerful motors, and a lithium-ion battery pack that lasts 8 hours, or enough for a full day of work.

The head has a 5-megapixel video camera pointing forward, a lower resolution camera pointing down at an angle to help with driving, three microphone and high-quality speakers, and -- my favorite feature -- a laser pointer that shoots green light from one of its eyes.

The 16-kilogram robot [35 pounds] rolls on two wheels using a custom self-balancing system, an approach that Blackwell says is more power-efficient, lets the robot drive over bumps, and has proved quite stable. QB can rotate around its vertical axis, easily take turns, and drive at 5.6 kilometers per hour [3.5 mph].

Anybots says "robocommuting" could not only improve collaboration but also save companies' time and money. Employees can work from home or other locations and reduce commute and travel.

But the question I -- and I guess many other people -- might ask themselves is, Why do you need a robot if you have pretty decent videoconference systems? Cisco Systems, the leader in this area, even uses the term "telepresence" for its products (Jack Bauer is a major "customer," by the way.)

"Videoconference is confined to structured environments like conference rooms," says Bob Christopher, Anybots' COO. "We want people to talk and interact in non-structured environments, anywhere."

"With QB," he adds, "you can continue talking to your colleagues after you left the conference room."

To use QB you don’t need to add any extra hardware to the office -- all it needs is a Wi-Fi network. The robot connects to it like any computer and sends and receives video and commands over the Net.

Controlling the robot requires only a Firefox browser and a plug-in from Anybots. You log in and instantly start seeing and hearing what the robot is seeing and hearing.

It’s not Star Trek teleportation, but "incarnating" a robotic body is quite an experience.

I had a chance to try it and will report on my tests in an upcoming feature article in IEEE Spectrum and here on this blog. In the mean time, let us know: Is robotic telepresence the future of work?

QB Specs:
8 hours of battery life
5 megapixel video camera
Supports Wi-Fi 802.11g
3.5 mph normal cruise speed
Price: US $15,000
Availability: Fall 2010

More photos:


Laser shoots from the right eye.


Docked on the recharging station.

anybots qb
Retracted neck, ready to travel.

Photos and video: Anybots

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