Now Available: Ava 500, Neato BotVac, and Cheaper NAOs for Everyone

Here's how to spend $80,000 on robots today

3 min read
Now Available: Ava 500, Neato BotVac, and Cheaper NAOs for Everyone



You look like you have a bunch of extra cash lying around. Like, maybe, about $80,000? As of this week, here are some robots that you can blow all of that on at once.

Unless you were a very lucky developer or an academic, odds are you haven't been able to get your hands on a NAO, at least partially because $16,000 is a lot of money for a little humanoid, no matter how cute and capable.

Aldebaran Robotics is trying to change that and it has just announced that a NAO will now cost $8,000. Such an abrupt and significant price drop makes us idly wonder whether we might be seeing something new from Aldebaran in the near future, and while that's keeping us busy, here's NAO jumping out of an airplane:

[ RobotsLab ]



Neato Robotics has announced a new vacuum, the BotVac. In a very iRobot move, it looks a little different than the older XV series of vacuums, but still includes the laser SLAM nav system:

As far as I can make out, the BotVac is an XV-11 with a Roomba-style edge brush (I think I'm allowed to say "Roomba style" since Neato is squarely taking aim at iRobot). The BotVac also has a 50 percent larger dirt bin and a redesigned skin. The navigation technology that's hyped in the vids is fundamentally the same as the original XV-11, so I can't really understand why they're suddenly making such a big deal out of it. Starting at $480, BotVac is certainly not cheaper than the XV-11 (or the other XV-series vacuuming robots), and in another very iRobot move, you can pay a lot more money (up to $600) for upgraded models with the same mechanics but including various filters and brushes.

[ Neato BotVac ]



At this point, we've still got $70k left to spend on something, and why not ditch it all in one place? iRobot's Ava 500 remote presence platform is now shipping in North America and Europe through Cisco resellers, for just $69,500. Or, if you're feeling cheap, you can lease one for $2,500 a month.

What makes the Ava 500 different from other telepresence platforms is that it can make maps and navigate around buildings by itself without running over people.

Ava 500 delivers high-definition, industry-standard video and unprecedented ease of use. The remote user schedules and controls Ava 500 using an iPad®, selecting the destination by tapping a location on a map or by choosing a location or employee name. At the time of the meeting, the robot autonomously navigates its way to the desired location and initiates the call using a Cisco TelePresence EX60. Because Ava 500 is autonomous and maps its own environment, there is no need to drive the robot or to understand the location’s layout. Ava 500 intelligently and safely self-navigates busy, real-world enterprise environments without bumping into people or objects. When desired, manual operations to rotate the robot, move the telepresence system up-and-down, and tilt the camera are also provided for more refined control of the robot. This allows the user to move about the room, participate in side discussions, and to be at either a standing or sitting height. At the end of the meeting, the Ava 500 simply disconnects and automatically returns to its charging station.

We've seen this navigation capability in action, and it's very impressive, even in the crowded exhibition halls where we generally get our demos. Is the robot (plus the Cisco telepresence backend) worth the premium? I suppose it depends on how much you like driving robots around offices, or how much trouble you're likely to get in trying to do that successfully.

[ iRobot Ava 500 ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.

"I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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