Robots for Real: For Willow Garage, Robotics Is Personal

For a Silicon Valley start-up, the future of personal robots is bright, and open source

3 min read

This segment is part of "Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real."

In this special report, we meet some of the world’s most creative minds in robotics to find out how their robots will transform our lives—for real. “Engineers of the New Millennium: Robots for Real,” a coproduction of IEEE Spectrum magazine and the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Engineering, aired on public radio stations across the United States.

Hosted by Susan Hassler and Ken Goldberg
Senior editor: Erico Guizzo

Robots for Real: For Willow Garage, Robotics Is Personal


Reported by Tekla Perry

Two-year-old start-up Willow Garage calls itself "a blend of research lab, technology incubator, and think tank." The goal is to make personal robots a reality, says CEO Steve Cousins.

Steve Cousins: We're about building a platform for robotics research and development. For what Linux is to PCs, we'd like to build the same thing for robots.

Tekla Perry: They call this the robot operating system, or ROS. Like Linux, it's an open-source project, available for public collaboration. Of course, you can't really have an operating system without some kind of standardized hardware. And since most personal robots out in the world aren't all that sophisticated, Willow Garage is building its own hardware. It's called the PR2. They've built three already for their own use and will make at least 10 available to outside researchers.

Tekla Perry: The PR2 bears a slight resemblance to Rosie in the Jetsons—a somewhat chunky robot, the height of a short adult, on a rolling platform.

Eric Berger: There's the two arms. Each of the arms is about the size of a human arm. The hand is just a gripper that moves open and closed. And then the fingertips have pressure sensors on them that let you know what you're pushing on, how hard you're pushing on it, where in the hand your grip is.

Tekla Perry: That's Eric Berger, who helped come up with the basic design. Berger describes the PR2.

Eric Berger: Below that is a tilting stage with a laser scanner on top of it. The head tilts side to side and looks up and down. On top of that, we've got two stereo cameras. One pair is designed for very good 3-D information up close, basically for manipulation. The other pair is designed to understand what's in the broad view of an entire room. Next to that there's a very high-resolution camera. And that's used for getting very precise information about things like the location of a plug on a wall. Below that is a tilting stage, tilts up and down, with a laser scanner on top of it.

Tekla Perry: This is all powered by four custom computers; the entire system has the processing power of about two Mac Pros.

Tekla Perry: Willow Garage recently invited some tech luminaries to come watch the robot roll around the hallways, open an office door, go inside, find the electrical outlet, and plug itself in. They recorded the experiment on video. The video went viral. There was something about a robot that could go out and charge itself that got people's attention.

Steve Cousins: I think it rocked a couple different audiences in different ways: the people who are just looking at robots from the outside—oh, this means the robot can charge itself. It can feed itself. And so there were a bunch of comments on our Web sites afterwards about oh, no, this means the robots are free to go out and, you know, conquer the world.

Tekla Perry: But the research community was thrilled. Because Willow Garage makes all its code freely available. Open-source software is one way the company is hoping to advance the state of the art of robotics.

Eric Berger: You can go online and download every line of code that ran in the milestone and look at it yourself. It's licensed, and somebody that wanted to start a company tomorrow based on that could go download that code and start that.

Tekla Perry: Cousins thinks that personal robots will someday be able to help people, perhaps not average folks anytime soon, but certainly the disabled or elderly.

Steve Cousins: For somebody who is disabled, it makes the difference between you have to have live-in care and you can do things for yourself.

Tekla Perry: These engineers want to make that day come a little sooner.

Eric Berger: Robotics is still very early. And right now what we're trying to do is push forward the playing field for everybody.

Steve Cousins: So instead of taking 15 years to get there, maybe we can get there in 10 years if we all work together.

Tekla Perry: So it may take a while. But I sure hope one day, if I need it, I'll be getting some help around the house from a robot named Rosie.

Tekla Perry: In Menlo Park, California, I'm Tekla Perry.

The Conversation (0)