The December 2022 issue of IEEE Spectrum is here!

Close bar

PlatformBot: Willow Garage's Secret Robot Prototype

The Silicon Valley start-up dreamed up an amazing robot helper, but it never became reality

3 min read
PlatformBot: Willow Garage's Secret Robot Prototype

Yesterday, Melonee Wise (co-founder and CEO of Unbounded Robotics) gave a talk at Xconomy's Robo Madness event. We were expecting to hear about how things were going with the UBR-1, and maybe some hints as to when it'll be available, but she surprised us by instead talking about PlatformBot, a prototype service robot that was apparently developed at Willow Garage in early 2012 but never released.

This was a surprise mostly because we only had a vague idea that anything like this even existed: it was certainly never public, but Wise's presentation made it clear that a huge amount of time and effort had gone in to deciding what PlatformBot was going to be, and then making it a reality.

We have no idea what happened to these robots, except that UBR-1 looks a lot like some of the concepts, which is probably not a coincidence, because the entire Unbounded Team seems to have been closely involved in the PlatformBot project before they spun out of Willow. We're actively following up on this and will have a lot more information for you in the near future, but for today, we have images and details from Wise's presentation at Xconomy.

PlatformBot started as Willow Garage was exploring how to create its next-generation mobile manipulation platform. PlatformBot was designed to take different aspects of robotics (like mobile bases, arms, grippers, and sensors) and try to figure out how to integrate them into a low-cost platform. In this case, the goal for "low-cost" was to get the manufacturing cost below US $10,000. Willow played around with all sorts of ideas of varying degrees of craziness viability, partially because when you ask people (non-roboticists) what they want robots to do, they tell you things that aren't necessarily realistic.

After going through lots of concepts, Willow eventually came up with requirements and specifications for PlatformBot, and settled on a basic design that included a mobile base, a head with sensors, an arm, and a bin. At that point, Willow started making prototypes out of laser cut foam core and MDF just to see how well they fit into human environments.

This incarnation of PlatformBot (the one on the left was called "Mr. Chubby") is a little less, er, conceptual than some of the preliminary designs, mostly because it had to actually function. It's also starting to look more than a little bit like the UBR-1, especially with its head, tucked arm, and (below) extendable torso:

Ultimately, Willow built three PlatformBots (pictured at the top of this article). They were named Huey, Dewey, and Louie, and the overall codename for the project was "Duckburg." The entire thing was executed over just five months (without any breaks for eating or sleeping, it sounds like), and the final projected cost for the robot was just $7,000, most of which was for off-the-shelf components. 

The thing that you might notice about this robot prototype (which is real, this one is Dewey) is that it has no arm on it, although every other concept image and rendering of PlatformBot does. This is slightly strange, especially since we know that at about this time, Willow had partnered with SRI and Meka Robotics to form Redwood Robotics, with the goal of developing a low-cost arm for service robots. For the moment, we're assuming that the Redwood arm probably had a place on PlatformBot, and we're not sure what to make of the fact that the robot in the picture is armless, but we're going to try to find out, since the Redwood arm is still somewhat of a mystery.

Again, we're working on getting more details (like, all the details), and we'll be following up on PlatformBot over the next few weeks.

[ Unbounded Robotics ]

The Conversation (0)

The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

Keep Reading ↓Show less