Robots can be lots of fun to work with. They can also be quite useful. Remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) like Oceaneering International’s Millenium were instrumental in capping the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (Fig. 1).
The ROV operated nearly a mile underwater performing a range of actions. Video from under the sea provided visual updates of the leak and hardware in addition to feedback for operators
Targeting the end user, the QB offers limited autonomous support using its pair of light detection and ranging (LIDAR) sensors. For example, it can provide movement down a hallway based on the position of the walls. Try to do that using just camera feedback.
The Texai development platform runs the open-source ROS platform (see “Robotic Frameworks” at www.electronicdesign.com). Unlike the more custom QB, the Texai uses off-the-shelf parts.
Several telepresence robots are on the market, such as RoboDynamics’ TiLR and SuperDroid Robots’ RP2W Two Way Remote Presence Robot. These platforms are available now, although they tend to be more for developers.
Anybot’s QB is going to run about $15,000, and the Texai is really a research vehicle. While not in the same class, WowWee’s Rovio (Fig. 4) is much more affordable at $299.
The Rovio is a bit shorter and provides audio feedback, not video. However, it highlights future possibilities as it has the same type of wireless connectivity and remote control as the other platforms.
In fact, the Rovio shares a lot with the other platforms when it comes to interaction—in this case, via a Web browser. It even has smart-phone apps that provide video and remote control support.
Telepresence And The Cloud
Browser-based interaction and ties to the cloud will be more important. It is currently possible to offload features like facial recognition to the cloud instead of hosting the support in the robot itself. There are tradeoffs to this approach, but wireless bandwidth options make it more practical.
Distribution of all sorts of actions and operations will likely be common in the near future. Everything from cooperative movement planning to scheduling a telepresence robot for use at a remote site will be everyday occurrences.
Telepresence robots are likely to be the first experience many consumers will have with a robot of their own. Lego’s Mindstorm robots (see “Tools Turn Robot Projects Into Child’s Play”) are great for learning, but consumer and commercial robots will make the difference to most end users.