Robots usually fall into one of two camps. Industrial robots have the speed, power, and the smarts to do real work. Think automotive welding and painting. And then there are robots for the home. They might be able to cut your lawn or vacuum the house, but often, these robots do little more than terrorize pets and try to look cute. Sometimes these very different robot worlds collide.
Consider the ER1 from Evolution Robotics (www.evolution.com). With an ordinary PC for a brain, a graphical programming interface, a snap-together aluminum framework, and a simple plastic drive train, this $3,000 robot mainly targets hobbyists. "Everything is pretty much off the shelf," says Richard Diephuis, Evolution's VP of engineering.
But Evolution robots also features technology that you won't find on any shelf. The ER1 and the next-generation ER2 are endowed with low-cost machine vision and navigation technology that could be put to use in some industrial settings. And they also make use of a robot development platform that could allow OEMs to embed robotics capabilities in their existing consumer products.
The main thing that sets Evolution robots apart is machine vision capabilities. "I don't believe any other system at this level recognizes objects reliably and as quickly. We get very few false positives," Diephuis says. Remarkably, the ER2 system uses common $50 web cameras to collect visual information. Its patented algorithms then extract key visual features from all the robot sees in order to recognize objects. "The vision capabilities allow the robot to do everything from reading text to following and picking up objects," Diephuis adds, noting that the system users infrared sensors to control its gripper.
And the vision system also helps the robot to move around with some autonomy. Using Evolution's Visual Simultaneous Localization and Mapping technology, the robot navigates according to an internal map of its environment. The map, which the robot creates on the fly, contains "landmarks" picked out by the vision algorithms and distance data collected from inexpensive wheel encoders.
The ER2's vision capabilities are just part of Evolution's Robotics Development Platform (ERDP) consisting of software modules that allow OEMs to add robot functionality to their products. These modules include object recognition and navigation as well as a variety of human-robot interaction technologies.
Evolution will license ERDP to OEMs wanting to add robotics to mass-market products. "We've been in discussion with some toy makers," Diephuis says, noting that Japan's Bandai has announced its intention to use ERDP for a new personal robot modeled on one of its character toys. He predicts that ERDP will also go into some industrial products, such as robots for materials handling, security, and autonomous floor care as examples.