It has been more than 40 years since the first robot began operation. This first robot, a production version of the Unimate industrial robot, eliminated the need for someone to handle molten metal auto parts. It went online in 1961 at a General Motors automobile factory in Ewing Township New Jersey (www.capitalcentury.com/1961.html). This die-casting mold dropped red-hot door handles and other car parts into cooling pools on an assembly line. Since then, the automation of industrial processes has spread throughout the world.
The UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) 2001 World Robotics survey (www.unece.org/press/pr2001/01stat10e.htm) reported the number of industrial robots operating worldwide at over 950,000 units, with 447,000 in Japan, 306,000 in the European Union and 90,000 in North America. In Europe, Germany leads with 91,000 units, followed by Italy with 39,000, France with 21,000 and the United Kingdom with 12,000.
Industrial Servant to Personal Servant
There has always been an interest in personal robots and the web has become a natural place for people to express that interest (see www.well.com/user/satyr/robotics.html or http://dailynews.yahoo.com/fc/Tech/Robots_and_Robotics). As computer, electrical and mechanical technology advances and miniaturizes; the ability to construct and operate useful robots also improves. A number of personal robots have already been developed including Honda’s Asimo (http://world.honda.com/robot), Lego’s Mindstorm (http://mindstorms.lego.com), Sony’s Aibo (www.aiboproject.com or www.eu.aibo.com – Artificially Intelligent robot), Segway/iBot (www.segway.com), and Matsushita Electrics Furbot (www.wired.com/news/business/0,1367,511 10,00.html), to only mention a few (see – http://dir.yahoo.com/Science/Engineering/Me chanical_Engineering/Robotics/Robots). These are an improvement over current personal robotic devices such as the robotic vacuum cleaner and robotic lawnmower – which still are not widely used. With the increased use of microchips in equipment such as appliances, heating and cooling systems, entertainment systems, fire and burglar alarms and the general trend towards home automation, advanced personal robotics naturally follows.
A shift in commercial interest from industrial robots to personal robots is changing the robotics community. One company that sells lawnmower robots has already sold 15,000 units (www.friendlyrobotics.com). See “R2-D2, where are you? The Robot’s Slow Evolution” for information on vacuum cleaner robots. Automated servants, as personal assistants, have been a topic among technophiles for a long time with robot enthusiasts flocking to so-called robot wars and other robotic competitions.
Companies including Matsushita Electrics, Sony, NEC, Intel, Fujitsu, and Lego have invested large sums in R&D over the past several years toward developing personal robotics. The personal robot market has already seen success with the introduction of early prototypes and robots such as AIBO. Sony generated sales well in excess of $250M in AIBOs first 18 months. The industry is now looking for functional applications, such as the robotic vacuum prototype developed by Electrolux. The personal robot industry needs a powerful and extensible standard that will become the foundation for developing functional and customized personal robots and robot capabilities for a variety of hardware designs and operating systems. As with other industries, one platform will emerge as dominant, much the same way the Windows OS did for the PC, resulting in increased development by third-party developers, lower production costs, and streamlined communication between machines.
Future Technology Will Boost Robotic Functionality
The Segway/iBot uses Micro- Electronic Mechanical Systems (MEMS) (www.mems-exchange.org and www.memsnet.org) technology for its gyroscope. Further development of powerful MEMS devices will lead to faster and smaller robotic parts. The next generation of wireless communication devices places the power of a desktop computer in the palm of your hand. These and other developments within the electronics industry will make robotic solutions more efficient and more affordable.
Up until now, technical developers built and programmed each robot from scratch. Similar to a computer without an operating system, each application must provide its own program flow, disk IO, user interface, error handling, and so on. A new architecture, from Evolution Robotics, supplies an open software platform for configuring advanced robotics hardware with the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) developer’s environment. This modular platform has a proprietary, behavior-based, hardware-independent and scalable software architecture that is upgraded as new hardware enters the market. The current Linux based release includes modules for autonomous mobility, cameras, sensors, speech and pattern recognition, and many other functions one expects from a state-of-the-art personal robot. The next release will have components for developing robotic functionality and behavior-based applications including vision, personality, speech, behavior, obstacle avoidance and target following. This company has a powerful and respected backer in idealab and Ben Rosen, founder of Compaq and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the California Institute of Technology adding funding and credibility to the entire concept of personal robotics.
The applications for advanced personal robotics are endless. Robots could receive and answer phone calls, take dictation and convert speech to text, read email messages, secure homes or offices, monitor computer networks, teach kids specific topics, deliver medication in nursing homes and keep track of warehouse inventories etc. With the proper architecture, development environment, hardware and software, the evolution of the robot could be as fast as that of the personal computer. Communication between robots could eliminate much of the mundane interfacing that humans do on a daily basis.
Evolution Robotics Architecture
The Evolution Robotics architecture is accompanied by a comprehensive set of software development tools, including various APIs, toolboxes (speech, personality, etc.) and tutorials that enable software developers, researchers and robot enthusiasts to create robots and robot capabilities quickly and easily.
The hardware kit comes complete with robot control module, camera, numerous sensors, motors and a modular aluminum building system. Everything plugs together without the use of wire-wrap, glue or solder. The software platform enables integration of software, hardware, and advanced applications producing a robot that can be taught to act autonomously and complete complex tasks.
Figure 1: Ultrabot:
Made from several hardware kits and some additional parts.
Figure 2: Hardware kit