The kind of generalist, go-anywhere-do-anything robot made famous by decades of science fiction is still, well, science fiction– but maybe not much longer.
A startup company called Unbounded Robotics is selling a three-foot-tall robot with a single manipulator arm. Unlike most robots, which are designed to test locomotion or do something specific (think of the Roomba) this one can be programmed for a wide range of tasks.
That might sound obvious — computers can do lots of different things too, after all — but programming robots to handle real-world objects has proven difficult to do, unless they are given precise instructions. Industrial robots, for example, will do only a small set of assembly tasks, and a Roomba can vacuum, move and avoid things, but that’s about it.
Unbounded Robotics’ machine, called the UBR1, is deliberately non-specific. It has an arm that can move in several directions and a “hand” on the end that can grasp with pincers. It can also roll along and detect obstacles in its way. UBR1 also has an extendible “torso” and USB ports, and powers up from the wall socket. It can navigate to its own dock, and has cameras to see with. But it isn’t programmed to do anything — that’s left up to the user, and Unbounded also plans to develop software of its own.
The robot is useful for academics studying how to program robots, of course. A key development, though, and the one that Unbounded Robotics is banking on, is mass-producing a robot that can be programmed to work around humans. Most industrial ‘bots work by themselves, and can be dangerous to be around because they don’t notice people. More to the point, it opens up the possibility of robots replacing people in jobs that right now, aren’t well suited for machines — for instance, the intern who gets your coffee.
Ordinarily such a versatile robot would be expensive. The UBR1 isn’t cheap, at about $35,000, with the first ones shipping out in the middle of 2014. It is, however, a lot less than a full experimental robot that a typical university might want, or some of the industrial models used in manufacturing. Either might cost in the six-figure range. For example, the PR2, a robot built by the non-profit Willow Garage, sells for $400,000. Unbounded Robotics is a spinoff of Willow Garage, and aims to make such robots available to a wider range of users.
It will be interesting to see how the UBR1 takes off, if it does. For those that are worried about robots taking over, it does come with an emergency stop button to “stop the robot apocalypse” in the words of Unbounded Robotics.
Credit: Unbounded Robotics / Eric Gulbransen