Okay, I love Legos, I love robots, I even love robotic Legos, but I can't decide if the tribute FlexPicker Lego-bot is awesome or just ridiculous. FlexPickers are lightning fast movers and sorters from ABB robotics that put most other industrial robots to shame. A user on Lego Mindstorms, with the handle 'LegoShep', recreated a FlexPicker using only Legos and an air compressor. Pretty amazing stuff. We've placed the video from our original Flexpicker story next to the Lego version below.
As a novelty the LegoFP (I'm coining the name now) is cool, but as a functioning robot it doesn't even compare to the original. Where's the lightning speed, the amazing agility, and the uncanny precision? The truth is that the LegoFP shouldn't impress you with its abilities, it should impress you with its very existence. Does LegoShep just have too much time on his/her hands? Sure. But the real issue is that an amateur roboticist is straining beyond the limits of consumer products. We need to harness the dedication, and the abundant free time, of do-it-yourselfers like Shep to help build the robotic future.
We've seen Willow Garage and others push for open source robotics, and even an universal robotics operating system. The goal, however, has always been to facilitate research, or establish new academic programs at universities. I think the work of Shep and others, just look at the Mindstorms website, proves that the robotics DIY community needs consideration as well. As amazing and versatile as Lego robotics can be (did you see the Lego ATM?), they are limited.
It would be great to see what amateurs could do with specially designed low cost components from Willow Garage, MIT, Tokyo University, or Honda. Hardware from any one of those groups may be able to push the likes of Shep from DIY to third party developer. These leaders of robotics could stand to gain just as the iPhone has benefited from an influx of entrepreneurs looking to design the next hot App.
I've been using the terms 'DIY' and 'amateur', but work like this is blurring boundaries. Heck, for all I know LegoShep is Helen Greiner on her days off work. Designing and building robots holds a lot of interest for people who aren't robotic engineers. Their enthusiasm and ingenuity will eventually make waves whether or not they are confined to hardware defined as a toy. In the meantime, I wonder if LegoShep takes request. Two words: Lego Motoman.
[photo credits: LegoShep]
LegoShep in real life is Chris Shepherd. Check out the original comment in the comment section below the post. It's also included here:
Aaron, thanks for the kind words! I am "LegoShep." Lego Mindstorms is an outstanding resource for low cost easily attainable robotic hardware and software and I highly recommend it. There is a large community of adult Lego Mindstorms enthusiasts out there that will agree.
More about the Flexpicker; ABB caught wind of the LegoFP and invited me to their ABB Robotics Technology Days 2009 in Auburn Hills. There I displayed the robot and frankly had more interest than all the other real robots. Go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TznZcsVGJus at 5:50 to see the display. I know that I interested lots of "real" robotic engineers into Lego Mindstorms while I was there.
By the way, I am working on a Motoman type articulated arm robot!