Until someone develops a common platform for building robots (think of the combination of Windows and Intel that has made PCs so accessible), the technology will remain elusive to the general public.
At least that’s the contention of Willow Garage, Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif. company that Wednesday made its PR2 personal robot available to the public.
PR2 comes with the basics: a mobile base, two arms for manipulation, a suite of sensors and two computers, each with eight processing cores, 24 gigabytes of RAM and two terabytes of hard disk . Willow Garage is hoping that its robot will blossom with the help of an open community of devoted engineers and software developers that can build on the PR2’s basics and share their breakthroughs with each other. Call it open source for robots.
The field of robotics needs to become more standardized if it is to flourish, says Keenan Wyrobek, co-director of Willow Garage’s Personal Robotics Program. “PR2 is all about taking us from where we are today to where you can pretty much make your own robot as needed,” he says.
The PR2 comes with a robot operating system (ROS), which handles the robot’s computation and hardware manipulation functions, to name a few. The ROS, like open-source software, is free and can be tweaked by users, as long as any improvements are shared back with the rest of the community of PR2 and ROS users. This community is key to the PR2’s success because it opens up the project to ideas and input from engineers around the world who know how to write programs for robotics navigation, vision, movement and other functions.