Unbounded Robotics: The Next Willow Garage Spin-Off?

Four employees from Willow Garage have started a mysterious new robotics company

3 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

Erico Guizzo is IEEE Spectrum's Digital Innovation Director.

Dictionary card showing definition and synonyms of 'unbounded.'

For the last several months, a number of Willow Garage employees have been transitioning over to some of Willow’s spin-off companies, including the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), Industrial Perception (IPI), and Suitable Technologies. We’ve been trying to generally keep track of who ends up where, and last week, we noticed that several roboticists who used to be with Willow have now formed an entirely new company called Unbounded Robotics.

First, let me say why we’re so interested in these spin-offs. Willow has brought about a lot of innovation in robotics, so it’s only natural that the companies spinning out of it will have a big impact as well. We want to know more about them, and we know you do, too. In fact, several readers have been asking us about them.

So what do we know about Unbounded Robotics? Not much. The information we’re presenting here is all from publicly available sources. We got our first hint at a conference last week, where we noticed several ex-Willow employees wearing name tags saying “Unbounded Robotics.” We got curious, of course. Some poking around on the web revealed that Unbounded Robotics was founded (or at least officially formed) in early January of this year, with its address listed as 68 Willow Road. This is Willow Garage’s address, which is why we’re assuming Unbounded Robotics is a Willow Garage spin-off. There’s an Unbounded Robotics website, but all it has is an amusing definition of “unbounded” and an email address (pictured above). We’ve sent a message asking for details, but haven’t heard back from anyone. More searches (LinkedIn provided some useful information) revealed that, as far as we can tell, Unbounded Robotics consists of at least four ex-Willow employees (all of whom are listed as co-founders). They are:

  • CEO Melonee Wise. Melonee mentioned in our TurtleBot 2 interview that she’d founded a new company, and although she wouldn’t say anything else about it, the robot now appears to be out of the bag. Melonee was at Willow since 2007, working as a senior engineer developing the PR2, ROS, and TurtleBot.

  • CTO Michael Ferguson was a software engineer at Willow for nearly two years. He’s also got experience developing custom hardware at his own company, Vanadium Labs.

  • Lead Systems Engineer Derek King. Derek started at Willow as a systems engineer in March of 2008, which goes back farther than Willow’s own history page. This means he was probably working on some of the company’s very early projects.

  • Lead Mechanical Engineer Eric Diehr worked as a mechanical engineer at Willow for nearly a year, and he has another two years of mechanical engineering experience on top of that.

So, what is Unbounded Robotics? We have no idea. But, we can make a somewhat educated guess based on the publicly available information we discovered (other bloggers have speculated about it too). Let’s start off with the team: we’re looking at a group of people who are very, very experienced at developing robotics hardware and software, suggesting that Unbounded Robotics is focused on making its own physical robot. The source code on the Unbounded Robotics website has search keywords that include “autonomous robots” and “mobile robots.” And finally, Melonee Wise did say in our TurtleBot 2 interview that her new company was focused on “creating low cost robotics for research and education.”

Put all of this together, and we’re picturing (this is pure speculation, mind you) some sort of new robotic platform that’s autonomous, mobile, and low-cost, designed primarily for the research market. What’s interesting here is that there’s been speculation for years (by us and others) that the next robot to come out of Willow Garage itself might be an adaptation of the PR2 concept (“we build the robot so you don’t have to”), except significantly more affordable. Basically, something that might cost something like $40,000 instead of $400,000, but would still be ROS-centric and able to fulfill the requirement for a robust mobile manipulator with a bunch of sensors on it. Perhaps Unbounded Robotics is trying to make something similar?

We should make it very clear that there is not a lot of information available at this point (try your own Google and LinkedIn searches!), and when it comes to what Unbounded Robotics is actually working on, all we can do is speculate based on what little we do know. We asked Willow Garage for comments, but they declined to add any additional information for this article. We’re hoping that we might hear more at ICRA or ROSCon next month, or failing that at RoboBusiness in October. Either way, we’ll keep you updated.

[ Unbounded Robotics ]

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