Three years ago, a Silicon Valley robotics startup called Willow Garage shook things up by offering one of the first robots capable of a wide range of different functions rather than a single focused task.
The so-called PR2 could do anything from folding laundry to picking up something from the floor to delivering a beer, and it was instantly the darling of researchers and robotics fans. The only problem was that it cost $400,000.
Now, several ex-Willow Garage employees have spun off their own company, known as Unbounded Robotics, and their first product is a very PR2-like machine -- a robot with a nearly unlimited number of potential applications, but which costs just $35,000.
Called UBR-1, the new robot runs on ROS, the Robot Operating System -- a open source platform supported in large part by Willow Garage to allow developers to create their own applications for machines like the PR2. Unbounded Robotics plans on taking orders for UBR-1 soon, and expects to start shipping next summer.
According to Melonee Wise, CEO of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Unbounded Robotics, UBR-1 was designed with a number of potential customers in mind. On the one hand, Wise said, the robot is well-suited for companies looking to automate tasks like stocking shelves, inspecting products, and logging production. But it could also fit the bill at elder care facilities, given that it can assume certain mundane, day-to-day tasks and free up nurses to do what they do best.
The UBR-1 has a single arm, capable of seven different motions, along with a gripper. It also features a pan-tilt head with a built in motion-sensing camera, and an exposed microphone that allows it to "hear," as well as speak.
Wise explained that Unbounded Robotics was able to develop the UBR-1 and sell it at a fraction of the PR2's cost because the startup leveraged its founders' years of experience as roboticists as well as a design philosophy geared toward a much lower cost. Also important was that the company incorporated commodity sensors, such as a 3D camera from PrimeSense -- whose technology is at the heart of Microsoft's Kinect -- rather than far more expensive components. "In the PR2, the camera represented about $5,000 worth of sensors," Wise said, "and the Kinect replaced it with a $150 sensor."
At the same time, Unbounded Robotics decided that the UBR-1 only needed a single arm, while the full-priced PR2 has two. Willow Garage did develop a single-armed version of the PR2 that cost $285,000.
Partnering for custom applications
Although UBR-1 comes with a gripper capable of picking up many kinds of things, Unbounded Robotics knows that some of its customers may want a robot with slightly different functionality. As a result, the company will develop a specification that allows third-parties to develop modular parts that differ from the UBR-1's stock parts. For example, Wise explained, future partners might choose to replace the standard gripper with things like suction cups or an electrostatic gripper.
Unbounded Robotics also plans to survey market conditions and, if necessary, to develop new grippers of its own if there's enough demand. And the UBR-1 comes with mount locations on the top of its head and at its base so that additional sensors can be attached. "We assume there will be cool new sensors coming out," Wise said, "and we don't want to hinder" people from adding them.
Plus, she said, because the UBR-1 has only one arm, it comes with mount locations to enable people to attach things like beer koozies or a dish rack. "The point from our perspective is to make sure that there's enough modularity and extensibility," Wise said, "that you can customize the platform to enable you to do your application."
While Unbound Robotics is hoping to attract large numbers of industrial customers, it is also hoping that the UBR-1 will appeal to senior citizens wanting to remain independent. She said that research shows that remaining independent can help seniors live longer, and that the UBR-1 would be ideal in helping people avoid the risk of injury that might come from falling down trying to pick things up from the floor, such as a dropped remote control. So while $35,000 might seem like a lot for an individual, that investment might help someone stay in their own home for a few extra years.