Building and maintaining robots is one of the biggest obstacles in robotics research: when you’re spending all of your time just figuring out how to get a robot to work and then keeping it working, you end up spending none of your time teaching that robot to do anything useful. In 2007, iRobot came out with the Create, a vacuumless 400-series Roomba specifically designed to be used as a hackable mobile base. At a base price of US $129, it was rugged and reliable and relatively easy to program, and we still see iRobot Creates being used in robotics research.
However, 2007 is a long, long time ago, especially at the pace of robot development, and the original Create was a more or less obsolete platform half a decade past. It’s not like iRobot wasn’t aware of this, and today, they’ve stepped up by announcing a brand new version of the Create, along with a renewed commitment to STEM and robotics education.
Here’s what we’re looking at, straight from the press release:
- Create 2 programmable robot platform – a preassembled mobile robot based on the Roomba 600 Series that provides an out-of-the-box opportunity for educators, students and developers to program behaviors, sounds, movements and add additional electronics
- Projects and instructions – basic programming examples and starter projects of varying difficulty to give students and educators a head start on their first robot programming assignment. Initial projects for students and educators include:
- “DJ Create 2,” – a roaming, robotic DJ that allows for easy control of music through a Bluetooth enabled mobile device
- “Light Bot,” which uses a light painting tutorial to create LED images
- 3D printable files – instructions and files to build new parts with 3D printing, including how to replace the bin with a cargo tray and for additional project parts
- Communication cable – a serial to USB cable to send commands from a desktop or other computing device to the robot
- Face plate drill template – for safe drilling into the Create 2 and mounting of hardware for projects
The Create 2 will sell for $200, and you can get one here.
Yesterday, we spoke with iRobot founder and CEO Colin Angle about why now, after seven years, it’s the right time for a new Create. Colin told us that the biggest issue with the original Create is that its electronics weren’t up to international safety standards, which means that the robot could never be sold anywhere but in the United States. Rather than letting the idea of the Create just slowly die, a bunch of iRobot employees got together about a year and a half ago and started a project to bring the Create up to date.
Just like with the first Create, the new Create is a Roomba with most of its guts ripped out. It’s based on a refurbished 600 series Roomba, which makes it cheap, but it’s also as reliable as a robot that’s successful in millions of homes can be. “It’s the pickup truck of educational robots,” says Angle. “It’s a high load capacity, extremely rugged, extremely affordable educational robot.”
Here’s the rest of our conversation with him:
IEEE Spectrum: What did you decide to change on the new Create based on how you saw roboticists using the old Create?
Colin Angle: The projects that people made with Create had everything to do with what you mounted on top. It was just amazing what you could do if you had a reliable and rugged platform that you could put several pounds of stuff on top of. We wanted to make that better, and that led us to the idea of instead of the original Create's top-accessible bin area, using a flat top with a faceplate that has standard bolt patterns and tells you where to drill to get to the serial port. That makes it easy to create a project, mount it on top of the robot, and then plug it in to your smartphone or Arduino or whatever you're using to talk to your computer and go.
How does Create 2 compare to other educational robot kits and mobile bases?
There are a lot of excellent educational robots out there that are more polished, or more focused on younger kids, with more limited but perhaps easier to use programming interfaces. [Create 2] is for someone who wants to make a durable robot with real payload capacity, and who wants to take advantage of the fact that the core of this robot is born from the reliability and durability of the 12 million Roombas that iRobot has sold. It has a suspension, it has excellent mobility, and it can carry a lot of weight.
So for $199, you get way more robot than I would argue you get with any other platform out there today. This is ideal for real academic work because of the repeatability, the durability, and the affordability of the product. It’s focused on college kids and high school kids who have an independent interest in robotics. This is not a revenue driver for the company: this is part of iRobot’s commitment to STEM education.
What does the future of the Create 2 look like?
The interesting thing, and not just for Create but for the robot industry in general, is the impact of 3D printing. We've always used 3D printing extensively in the design of our products: there were times when iRobot was the largest consumer of 3D printing in the state of Massachusetts. Where it's going is that robots could one day be software. You could go to the store and buy a box of parts and some files that you'd print out, and that would become your robot. Talk about disrupting the robot industry: when physical robots become software, it's going to be quite interesting.
In preparation for that day, I've been pushing our folks to not just think about 3D printing as a way of prototyping. Additionally, how do we think about it as a way of allowing user customization or user augmentation of their robots? Where do we try this idea out? It's not going to be in our consumer products: 3D printing doesn't yet have the durability for that. But in our educational products, we wanted to try this. The reason that we're giving the 3D printable files for the robot is to start learning about the issues that our users will have trying to take those files and turn them into parts for the robot. And I think it's going to be fascinating, with an impact far beyond the research that they're doing. It's helping our company investigate what I think is going to be a profoundly important new dimension to the robotic industry and consumer product industry in general.
[ iRobot Create 2 ]
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Antarctica (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan's work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR's Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.