Low-Cost Depth Camera Update: Microsoft Kinect in November, Others to Follow Shortly?

Microsoft Kinect Depth Camera

Back in late March, Hizook provided an overview of various depth cameras (aka range cameras, 3D cameras, time-of-flight cameras, RGB-D cameras), including the PrimeSense solution now known to be the basis of Microsoft's Kinect (formerly Project Natal).  In the last 3 months, the depth camera space has seen numerous updates, such as additional commercial offerings and product updates / availability.   Perhaps the most exciting news (as we speculated in March) is that low-cost offerings will indeed be hitting the market later this year:  Microsoft recently confirmed that Kinect (formerly Project Natal) will start shipping in early November and is already available for pre-order on Amazon.com for $150 USD!   More questions than answers remain -- here is what we know, help us fill in the gaps...

TBot: Reconfigurable 140kg Balancing Robot for the US Military

Transforming Robot with Dynamic Stability

Back in 2006-2007, a dynamically-stable robot named TBot was developed at the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) by a team of professional roboticists.  Financed by a now-defunct DARPA program, the goal was to create a a robot capable of fast transportation in open areas  and precision operation in tight urban combat scenarios.  Using two "arms" capped with an extra set of wheels and a linear "waist" actuator, TBot can transform from various four-wheel statically-stable (large footprint) configurations to a two-wheel dynamically-stable (small footprint) configuration, and vice-versa.  I'm still a bit skeptical about dynamic stability -- often, it seems to add many challenges for very few added benefits.  Perhaps the transformer approach, like the TBot and the iBot personal wheelchair, is a healthy compromise for those who insist on (occasional) dynamic stability?

Nesbot Robot Doesn't Just Fetch Coffee -- It's the Actual Coffee Machine

Nesbot Coffee Machine Robot by BlueBotics

We've seen snack-carrying and coffee-fetching robots on Hizook before, but the BlueBotics Nesbot really speaks to my over-caffeinated heart.  Nesbot is an autonomous mobile coffee machine whose sole purpose is to take my web-based order, autonomously locate me (via BlueBotics' ANT navigation system), and deliver my choice of  six blends -- and remember, I prefer strong espressos!   It seems that Nesbot was a contract job for BlueBotics, which is one of a few select robotics companies in the EU BRICS project, commissioned by Nestlé Nespresso to "investigate future applications in the coffee service market."  I like it -- I want all of my robots to have embedded coffee machines... 

KUKA youBot Robot Unveiled at Automatica: A Mecanum Base With 5 DOF Arm

KUKA youBot Robot with mecanum omnidirectional base and 5DOF arm

This week KUKA Robotics is demonstrating their latest product offering at the Automatica conference in Munich: the youBot robot.  YouBot is a mobile manipulating robot with a 5DOF arm coupled to a mecanum omnidirectional base -- essentially the same product that Hizook predicted when the individual components were being demonstrated at IROS 2008.  KUKA will start delivery in November for Germany (March for the US), and the robot will cost approx $24,000 USD (less with educational discounts), and components will be available separately.  The youBot looks to be a solid robot platform and is not encumbered by the large control boxes characteristic of some larger KUKA arms -- a few photos and videos are embedded below.

Spotlights for PR2 Beta Robot Recipients Posted by Willow Garage

Willow Garage

At Willow Garage's week-long PR2 training workshop, each of the eleven recipient institutions gave a 15-20 minute talk highlighting their planned research activities on the PR2.  On Monday, with a little help from yours truly, the first beta-site spotlight (of Georgia Tech) was posted on the WG blog -- complete with recorded video from the training workshop talk by Prof. Charlie Kemp (of Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab).  Today, the spotlight for UC Berkeley (with video) followed.  These spotlights and recorded talks are a treasure trove of insights into work being performed at several top robotics research labs.  They are definitely worth reading / watching!  As as they come online, I'll embed the videos below and include links to Willow's thorough blog posts.  [Warning: many embedded videos below.]

Roomba QuadDrive: A Whimsicle Omnidirectional Mobile Robot Base Created From 4 Roombas

Roomba QuadDrive Omnidirectional Robot Base

The curious robotic creation pictured below is called the Roomba QuadDrive, and hails from the University of Bonn's Autonomous Intelligent Systems Lab (NimbRo@Home).   The Roomba QuadDrive is an omnidirectional mobile robot base of the powered caster variety with one obvious (whimsical) characteristic:  it uses four IRobot Roomba 530s as the drive motors, each paired with a Robotis Dynamixel RX-64 servo for steering!  Another of the lab's robots, named Robotinho, surfed atop the QuadDrive base when competing in the 2009 RoboCup@Home competition and when it gave tours of the Deutsches Museum in Bonn -- a short clip of which is embedded below.

Vgo: Another Player in the Remote Presence (Mobile Telepresence) Game

Vgo Communications Remote Presence Robot

The Boston Globe has unearthed another solid player in the remote presence (sometimes referred to as mobile telepresence or mobile videoconferencing) game. This time, it is the Vgo (pronounced Vee-Go) robot from Vgo Communications. Apparently Vgo Communications was founded in 2007 by Tim Root and has upwards of $8M in venture capital funding. The Vgo robot is pretty sleek with a nice cosmetic shell, though it seems a bit vertically challenged. Its target price-point is somewhere around $5000, with a required $1200 annual support contract. This comes just days after Anybots made their QB robot announcements ($15,000 ea.) and after some high-profile Willow Garage Texai events. A few other major players have been relatively quiet as of late, such as InTouch Health and Giraff Technologies (formerly HeadThere).

Willow Garage PR2 Beta Program Launch Party and Press Conference

Willow Garage PR2 Beta Program Launch Party and Press Conference

On Wednesday night, midway through a week-long PR2 training workshop, Willow Garage held a press conference and party celebrating the launch of the PR2 Beta Program, essentially signifying the completion of their Milestone 4.  The night featured speeches by Willow Garage founder (Scott Hassan), CEO (Steve Cousins), and Personal Robotics Program co-founders (Keenan Wyrobek and Eric Berger).  Eleven PR2 robots, destined for recipient robotics institutions around the world, made dramatic entrances before performing an impressive 11-robot coordinated dance (see video below).  I was privileged to attend the event as both a workshop participant and as a Hizook "press" representative, providing access to the press conference where I met other elite robotics bloggers, such as Norri Kageki (GetRobo), Evan Ackerman (BotJunkie), and Erico Guizzo (IEEE Spectrum Automation Blog).  The event was fun, and definitely strengthened my impression that the personal robotics revolution is near.  Updated June 2nd 2010:  The official Willow Garage mashup from the "PR2 Graduation Party" has been posted (embedded below).

Willow Garage's Week-Long PR2 Robot Training Workshop

Last week Willow Garage kicked off its official PR2 Beta Robot Workshop, where approximately 50 robotics researchers from the 11 PR2 recipient institutions gathered to become familiar with ROS on the PR2, hack on the robot alongside Willow personnel, and have plenty of stimulating robotics discussions.    Attending as a grad student in Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab, I had a front-row seat to this enjoyable but grueling event.  I'll give my high-level day-to-day overview of the week (below), which included the "PR2 Launch Party" on Thursday night that featured many prominent folks from Silicon Valley (more detailed coverage).  As an aside, I was proud to hear that so many robotics professionals at the event read and enjoy Hizook -- be sure to contribute your photos and impressions in the comments.

Meka Robotics Demonstrates G1 Robot Gripper (Robot Hand) -- "Coming Soon"

Meka Robotics G1 Gripper

On Thursday, Meka Robotics uploaded a video showing off their latest "coming soon" product, the G1 robot gripper.  While the price and specs are still unknown, the patent-pending parallel-jaw design with independent finger actuation looks interesting -- a great addition to their product lineup.  Be sure to check out the video embedded below. 

Lessons in Robot Mass Production: IRobot Roomba 4000 Series Teardown

IRobot Roomba 4000 Series

I finally took a few minutes to watch a tear-down of the Roomba 4000 Series vacuum cleaner by Dino Segovis of DinoFab.com.  The 20-minute two-part video (embedded below) provides a pretty solid look at the design considerations that went into making the Roomba both robust and low-cost.  While the sensors and motherboard are definitely interesting, the motors are the most intriguing to me -- they seem to be separately fabricated modules with a small DC motor coupled to a planetary gearhead via a belt drive.   It is also striking just how much gunk (hair, dust, etc.) builds up inside every nook and cranny of the robot.  Definitely a hacker-friendly robot that offers plenty of lessons to people interested in designing commercial robots -- almost worth buying one just to look at first-hand.

IRobot Unveils Compliant "Jamming" End Effector (Robot Hand)

Particle Jamming End-Effector

At IROS 2009, IRobot demonstrated an interesting form of locomotion dubbed "particle jamming skin" (to create what became known as the "blob bot").  The robot was creepy, but the concept was interesting.  In a recently available TEDMED 2009 talk (embedded below), IRobot CEO Colin Angle describes a unique particle jamming end effector (robot hand) for manipulation.  By selectively inflating or deflating, the particle jamming end effector can change from a liquid-like state to ooze around a target object and then harden into a solid-like state to grasp or pickup the object.  Colin shows a video of a PackBot with particle jamming end effector picking up medication, keys, and a (dummy) patient's arm.  He also does a live demonstration using a hand-held particle jamming system.  Be sure to check out the video and stills below -- they will help you understand this bizarre (but compelling) robot hand.

Colin Angle's (IRobot CEO) TEDMED 2009 Talk: IRobot Entering the Healthcare Robotics Business

IRobot Logo

Back in October 2009, Colin Angle spoke at TEDMED 2009.  It was a big announcement: IRobot was launching a new healthcare robotics business unit to be led by Tod Loofbourrow.  Their ambitious goal:  add 1 million years to users' lifetimes through robotic assistance.  Some good synopses of the talk were posted, but videos of the event were elusive... until now.  Below you can find the full video of Colin's talk and some points that I think are particularly poignant.

Willow Garage Selects Eleven Recipients of PR2 Beta Robots Valued at Over $400,000 Apiece!

Willow Garage

Today Willow Garage announced that eleven (rather than the original ten anticipated) PR2 Beta robots, with a total value of over $4.4M, will be loaned out to academic and research institutions worldwide to develop a slew of impressive capabilities over the next two years.  The recipients include 7 US-based institutions, 3 European, and 1 Asian.  The final list is a panoply of robotics specialists:  University of Freiburg (Germany), Bosch, Georgia Tech, KU Leuven (Belgium), MIT, Stanford, TU Munich (Germany), UC Berkeley, U Penn, USC, and University of Tokyo (Japan) -- full details can be found in the Willow Garage press release.  It is difficult to overstate the importance of this event in the grand history of robotics...  Let me try to explain.

Two Open Hardware Robotics Companies Near $1 Million in Revenue

Open Hardware Creative Commons

Phillip Torrone (senior editor of Make Magazine) and Limor Fried (aka Lady Ada), both of AdaFruit Industries, gave a talk at O'Reilly's Foo Camp East 2010 that unveiled the financials of two robotics-related open hardware projects.  First, DIYDrones -- founded by Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson and makers of open hardware UAV components like autopilots and IMUs  -- is approaching $1M in revenue (est. 2010).  Second, MakerBot -- an open hardware 3D printer and purveyors of an online 3D design repository called Thingiverse -- has surpassed $1M in revenue.  Looks like open hardware is really starting to gain momentum.

New robot hand called the "Adaptive Gripper" from Robotiq (Canadian robotics startup)

Robotiq Adaptive Gripper

Robotiq is a new Canadian startup spun-out of the Laval University Robotics Lab and founded by Samuel Bouchard, Vincent Duchaine and Jean-Philippe Jobin.  Their first product is a very cool looking three-fingered robot hand called the "Adaptive Gripper."  It is comprised of three under-actuated fingers, two of which can change their position and orientation to support a variety of grasp configurations -- very similar in principle to the Barrett Hand and Schunk SDH Hand.  The Adaptive Gripper's prominent finger linkages lead to a rather beautiful mechanical motion, as seen in the grasping videos (below).  I would imagine the mechanical linkages also offer additional robustness compared to under-actuated cable-driven competitors and cost advantages over fully-actuated competitors.  Unfortunately, its price is still an unknown -- perhaps someone attending ICRA 2010 in Alaska can stop by their booth and inquire...?

Shares of IRobot Corp (IRBT) Jump 30% in One Day

IRobot Stock Price Jump

IRobot posted amazing first-quarter revenue, driving the stock price up 30% in one day to a new 52-week high.  The new stock price is hovering right at $20 per share, up 96% from its late-July low of $10.21 per share.  I'm glad too see such a positive turn around, though it is somewhat bittersweet -- I had been considering a purchase of IRBT shares ever since a prescient analysis by "Robot Stock News" in early December, but lacked funds to make the plunge.  I guess meager graduate student salaries are not conducive to investing.

Electroactive Polymer (EAP) Robot Blimp

Electroactive Polymer (EAP) Powered Robot Blimp

This new robot blimp, powered by electroactive polymers (EAPs), comes from the Swiss Federal Labs for Materials Testing and Research (EMPA). It reminds me of the Festo Air Ray, and definitely ranks up there with other cool EAP robots like the Artificial Muscle EPAM variants previously discussed on Hizook.  Be sure to check out the video.

Mars Escape: MIT game designed to teach robots to act more like humans

Mars Escape game

[We received the following note from Sonia Chernova @ MIT Media Lab]  The Personal Robots group at the MIT Media Lab has released an online game designed to make robots smarter!  Mars Escape is a two-player online game in which each player can take on the role of an astronaut or a robot on Mars.  The players must work together to complete their mission before oxygen supplies run out.

Low-Cost Depth Cameras (aka Ranging Cameras or RGB-D Cameras) to Emerge in 2010?

Time-of-Flight (TOF) Ranging Cameras such as the SR4000 and PMDtec CamCube

Depth cameras go by many names: ranging camera, flash lidar, time-of-flight (ToF) camera, and RGB-D camera.  The underlying sensing mechanisms are equally varied: range-gated ToF, RF-modulated ToF, pulsed-light ToF, and projected-light stereo.  The commonality is that all provide traditional (sometimes color) images and depth information for each pixel (depth images) at framerate.  Existing commercial offerings, such as the Swiss Ranger SR4000 and PMD Tech products, currently cost ~$10,000.   Thus, I'm extremely excited by Dieter Fox's recent statement about a sub-$100 depth camera that could hit stores later this year!  Dr. Fox has already leveraged a similar (this?) sensor to build cool 3D SLAM maps akin to Google Street View indoors -- see videos below.  Is Dr. Fox's employer (Intel) building depth cameras?  Is this a new PrimeSense offering?  Or could it hail from fellow Seattle powerhouse, Microsoft, who not long ago purchased 3DV Systems (purveyor of ToF cameras) and who plans to release Project Natal (rumored to be projected stereo) later this year for the XBox 360?  I'd love details, but am intrigued regardless!  Updated March 31st 2010:  Big news -- PrimeSense is supplying the 3D sensing technology to Project Natal for the XBox 360!  Now I'm almost certain this is the sensor referred to by Dieter Fox.

Cody: A New Humanoid Mobile-Manipulating Robot from Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab

Cody, A New Humanoid Mobile-Manipulating Robot from Georgia Tech Healthcare Robotics Lab

This new humanoid robot named "Cody" comes from Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab (to which I belong).  Cody is composed of a Segway RMP 50 Omni mobile base, 1-DoF vertical linear actuator, and a pair of 7-DoF Meka Arms with series elastic actuators (the same as Simon).  This mobile manipulator has shown some pretty impressive capabilities.  It can open doors, drawers, and cabinets using equilibrium point controllers developed by Advait Jain and Prof. Charlie Kemp.  It also has a nice direct physical interface (touching interface) to reposition the robot that was developed by Tiffany Chen and Prof. Charlie Kemp. Much of the code controlling this robot is open-source and has ROS (Robot Operating System) interfaces.  Be sure to check out the videos and photos below.

Robotis Dynamixel Servos: Overview, Applications, Tear-Down, and Open-Source Software

Robotis Dynamixel RX-28 Smart Servo

Professional and hobbyist roboticists alike are snapping up Robotis Dynamixel Servos.  These "smart" servos serve an important niche between $30 hobby servos and super-expensive harmonic drive servos.  They sport torques ranging from 12 kg·cm to 106 kg·cm, and even more when doubled-up.  Most of my experience is with the RX-28 and RX-64 variants, which have 300° swing, 10-bit position sensing resolution, (roughly) 8-bit position control, force/torque sensing, available compliance mode, and can daisy-chain more than 250 servos.  At Georgia Tech's Healthcare Robotics Lab, we use dozens of these servos.  I recently invested a decent amount of time overhauling our open-source (Python) control software, adding (among other things) thread-safe operation and ROS (Robot Operating System) compatibility.  In this post, I'll do a brief overview of the Robotis Dynamixel offerings, look at a number of impressive applications where they are utilized, share pictures of a servo's disassembly, and give a brief tutorial using the new (awesome) open-source software libraries.

MeBot: An Affective Teleconferencing Robot from MIT Being Presented at HRI 2010

MeBot Affective Teleconferencing Robot

Colleague and labmate, Tiffany Chen, pointed out an interesting new robot named "MeBot" from MIT's Personal Robotics Group.  Later this week, MeBot will be presented at the conference on Human-Robot Interaction (HRI 2010) in Osaka, Japan.  The associated paper, "MeBot: A Robotic Platform for Socially Embodied Presence," has been nominated for best paper.  In a nutshell, MeBot is a semi-autonomous robotic avatar that provides rich, remote interaction by conveying non-verbal channels of social communication in addition to video, something that is not provided by existing phone and video conferencing.  The expressiveness of MeBot is impressive.  It reminds me of the (now well-known) CrabFu Swashbot, but ups the ante by including video capabilities.  Be sure to check out the videos and photos below to see what I mean.

Learning to Estimate Robot Motion and Find Unexpected Objects from Optical Flow

Optical flow.

This article is an illustrated summary of a recent paper we presented at CVPR 2009.  We leverage some of the linear properties of optical flow fields to develop a method that automatically learns the relationship between camera motion and optical flow from data.  The method can handle arbitrary imaging systems including very severe distortion, curved mirrors, and multiple cameras.  Using this method, a robot can estimate it's motion in real time from video while detecting "motion anomalies" such as nearby or moving objects.

Amoeba-Like Whole-Skin Locomotion Robots Ooze Right On By

Early prototype of whole-skin locomotion by Dr. Hong inspired by water snake toy.

Back in 2007 and 2008, funding agencies had a pretty hefty interest in robots with amoeba-like locomotion, also known as whole-skin locomotion (WSL), blob 'bots, or Chembots.  NSF awarded $400k to Dr. Dennis Hong of Virginia Tech's RoMeLa Lab and DARPA awarded $3.3M to iRobot to develop such robots.  Now, most people are familiar with iRobot's jamming skin robot announced at IROS 2009 (photos / videos below).  However, I would like to share with you the equally-clever and interesting work of Dr. Hong, including a new whole-skin locomotion robot called ChIMERA: "Chemically Induced Motion Everting Robotic Amoeba" that was unveiled at a recent TEDxNASA event.  Dr. Hong's robots resemble those slippery water-snake toys that are incredibly difficult to grasp, with silicone skin (flexible but rugged exterior) and water or gel inside (soft interior).  Read on to learn more!

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