January 9, 2003 7:14 AM PST

Robots for the masses

A start-up company says it has developed a navigation system that is cheap enough to bring robots to the mass-consumer market.

Pasadena, Calif.-based Evolution Robotics said its technology that lets a robot determine its position relative to its environment is based on wheel sensors and a Webcam that cost less than $50. That's a fraction of the cost of current robot navigation systems relying on laser range finders, which can cost $5,000, the company said.

The company asserts that its relatively inexpensive system "will result in a new generation of products that were previously inconceivable."

Evolution isn't alone in working on mobile robots and computer vision. Others include robot makers iRobot and ActivMedia Robotics, as well as computer vision specialists Tyzx and Point Grey Research.

Vladimir Tucakov, a director at Point Grey Research, said Evolution's system is a breakthrough for the field. "It's pretty important in that it's going to allow navigation to become a lot cheaper and probably even more robust," he said.

Evolution used the backdrop of the Consumer Electronics Show 2003 in Las Vegas to introduce its technology. Dubbed "visual simultaneous localization and mapping," or VSLAM, the system creates a map of a space from the distance and direction that its wheels travel and from objects it recognizes with its camera and software. A robot equipped with the technology can use the data from its wheels and camera images to keep track of its location.


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Although the system must be "trained" with an initial tour of its environments, it can update its map to account for changes in furniture locations, Evolution CEO Bernard Louvat said.

Additional sensors are needed to avoid colliding into obstacles, Louvat said. But once outfitted with such sensors, a robot with VSLAM can change its course and continue to its destination. "It sort of readjusts its path and keeps going," he said.

Louvat hopes to sell the navigation system both to industrial players--such as the makers of security robots and factory robots--and to consumers. Consumer-oriented robots that could incorporate VSLAM include vacuum cleaners, home security robots, mobile video-conferencing units and entertainment droids, Louvat said.

Evolution has signed up one customer so far: Japanese toy maker Bandai, which makes Power Ranger and Digimon products. On Wednesday, Evolution said Bandai would create a catlike robot based on its navigation system and other robotic technologies it licenses, such as ones that focus on human/robot interaction and robot personality. Bandai's feline is due out in 2005.

Louvat would not disclose the exact cost of Evolution's technology but said it would account for 5 percent to 10 percent of the retail price of a consumer robot.

Also on Wednesday, Evolution introduced a prototype personal robot, the ER2. The machine, a small, stout robot with a camera eye, earlike appendages and a video screen on its chest, comes with VSLAM technology and can carry out tasks ranging from home security to reading with children to videoconferencing, the company says. Evolution is seeking a manufacturing partner to mass-produce the robot, Louvat said. He expects it to reach the market either this year or next year with a price ranging from $1,000 to $2,000.

Evolution was founded in 2001 and has raised $10 million in venture funding. The company aims to be profitable in 2004, Louvat said.

Evolution's announcements Wednesday are part of accelerating developments in robotic navigation after decades of frustration. Robot experts say mobile computer vision turned out to be more complex than initially thought in the 1970s.

Carnegie Mellon Professor Hans Moravec recently developed a navigation system based on stereo cameras and a 3D computer grid in a robot's "brain." He said Evolution's VSLAM technology "probably works much better outdoors than indoors, where line of sight to landmarks will be routinely blocked." But he said systems like Evolution's might build a larger market for robots, setting the stage for more sophisticated machines in the future. Moravec has predicted the development of supercapable robots that eventually replace humans in some roles.

Jeanne Dietsch, CEO of ActivMedia, questioned whether Evolution's navigation technology is precise enough to be used in commercial settings such as research labs or electronics factories, but she wished the company luck. Evolution may help bring credibility to an industry where dreams of R2-D2-like droids haven't become reality, Dietsch said.

"The more companies that create successful robot applications, the more people will trust in the field," she said.

 

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