In a laboratory at the University of Technology Sydney, more than a dozen robots are frozen mid-movement, waiting to be switched on and brought back to life.
The largest — a 4.5ft (1.5m) mega machine with jointed arms, a metal chest and an accordion spine — extends its plier-like pincers. Nearby, two sporty-looking robots rest on their shin guards, fists clenched, as if they're letting off steam.
“[The sporty robots] have good sensors, two cameras and eyes that change colour. They also have articulated joints so they can pick up things,” said researcher Mary-Anne Williams, who is using these programmable machines to study high-level human behaviours and emotions, including beliefs, empathy and learning. She and her UTS colleagues are working to enhance robot social skills to make more sophisticated consumer robots, which today range from clever household appliances that help with chores to humanoids capable of communication.
Despite advances, consumer robots still have a long way to go when it comes to usability and price. Advanced humanoids can cost upwards of six figures making such technology out of reach for most people. Nonetheless, robots of varying intelligence are available and interacting with humans more every day. Here’s how to join the robot revolution.
What you’ll pay
Start your search online, at electronic stores, auction sites and hobby shops, or seek out specialist manufacturers like Aldebaran and iRobot. The cost will vary — anywhere from several hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands — depending on processing speed, the number of sensors and motors, memory, storage and battery life, and whether a robot is new or second-hand.
The first robot Williams worked with was the now-discontinued Aibo, a dog-like robot manufactured by Sony between 1999 and 2005. Aibo catered to researchers who joined RoboCup, an international robotics soccer league that Japan founded as an effort to spur robotic advancement. But the mechanical pup — which could dance, take photos and learn voice commands — was so popular in Japan that in 1999, 3,000 consumer robots were sold online in less than 20 minutes. The cost? About 250,000 yen ($2,070). Later, Aibo was released online in the US for $2,500, and 2,000 more were snapped up in four days. New versions were released every year, and many Aibos can be found on auction sites like eBay today for $600 to $6,000.
In 2006, French robotics company Aldebaran invented a small humanoid robot named Nao, which can recognise human voice, speech and facial expressions. Nao quickly replaced Aibo in RoboCup and research labs. The Evolution 5 model retails for $7,990 on the robotics education website Robots Lab, not including batteries or a charger, which cost $290 each.
In Japan, the latest robot craze is Aldebaran’s social humanoid named Pepper, which is currently greeting customers at SoftBank stores in Tokyo. The robot is so in demand that in February, SoftBank, Aldebaran’s majority stakeholder, held a lottery in which residents of Japan submitted online applications to purchase Pepper. The company received so many requests it decided to limit the first 300 models to Japanese developers and delay the consumer release to summer. The base price was 198,000 yen (about $1,660), not including software, insurance or tax.
“That’s an amazing price because the robot has 20 actuators (electric motors) and it’s humanoid, though it uses wheels to get around,” said Atsuo Takanishi, a roboticist at Waseda University in Tokyo and the president of the Robotics Society of Japan. “It has a tablet in the front of the chest, a vision system to recognise [its surroundings] and a microphone to recognise human speech.”
Its purpose? Takanishi likens Pepper’s functionality to that of a smart phone for which anyone can add applications for anything — a robotic favour perhaps or maybe entertainment, games or intuitive responses. Unlike a smart phone, Pepper can speak and gesture like a person.
But the robot that’s really firing up Williams’ team in Australia — as well as research groups at top institutions such as Stanford and MIT in the US — is PR2, a heavy-duty machine produced by Silicon Valley company Willow Garage that features two quad-core processors plus 24 gigabytes of memory and two terabytes of hard drive space. It’s on the market for $280,000 for those with the demonstrated ability to contribute to the company’s open-source Robot Operating System community. PR2 was designed to help launch a new industry of service robots, which could assist humans with menial or sophisticated tasks.
Which robot is right for you?
Knowing the use of your robot will help you determine what kinds of specifications to look for. Communities from online drone forums such as DIYdrones.com and Phantompilots.com to the open-source Robot Operating System might be the most important factor when deciding which robot company or model to go with. Or a less-sophisticated robot that’s more affordable and does a simple task may provide all you need.
Newer flying robots, or drones, like the DJI Phantom 3 ($1,259) and 3DRobotics Solo ($1,900 including GoPro Hero4 camera and attachment) can produce awe-inspiring aerial footage and be programmed for advanced actions such as following a target. Drones can be purchased through robotic company websites; at major camera, electronic and hobby shops; and through online retailers from BHphotovideo.com to Amazon.com.
Argentine drone enthusiast Matias Requena uses his DJI Phantom 2 quadcopter (it has four rotors) for freelance photography and video to document real-estate sites, like ranches and vineyards, as well as wedding locations in Santa Barbara, California, where he’s currently based. For Requena, the camera was the most important feature.
If you just need a little help around the house, consider cleaning robots like iRobot’s Roomba and the Samsung Powerbot. Williams bought her Powerbot vacuum on special for A$900 (roughly $700) at the Australian department store Harvey Norman.
“I call mine Ferdinand after the bull in one of the Bugs Bunny episodes,” Williams said. “He builds a map, finds the dirt, then recharges himself.
Battery life is one issue to contend with. Drones max out at about 20 minutes of flight time, while the super-computing PR2 runs for just an hour before needing a charge. Pepper, on the other hand, claims to offer 12 hours of continuous life.
Locomotion is a second factor. Walking humanoids are less reliable than robots on wheels, according to Williams. And most robots, with the exception of a few like the PR2, can’t effectively detect and respond to collisions, so it’s wise to always keep a buffer.
While big-ticket humanoid robots usually offer insurance and instalment plans, crash-prone drones can be more difficult to cover. Entrepreneur Henry Minden founded Chop Inc to develop accessories such as a light-weight safety orb he calls “training wheels.” Until that kind of bumper hits the market, he recommends buying on sites like Amazon.com that offer warranties.
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