Willow Garage Ushers in Revolution With Open Source Robots (video)

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The PR2 Betas with their new owners. 11 teams that will help launch a new wave of open source innovation. Personal robotics is near.

I’ve just returned from one of the most momentous events of the year: the launch of Willow Garage’s PR2 Beta Program. The ambitious endeavor seeks to accelerate the development of robotics by giving away 11 world class open source robot platforms (the PR2 Beta) to research teams from across the globe. Let me tell you, Hubbers, what I saw tonight was an inflection point in robotics. Forget Skynet and the robot Armageddon. Willow Garage is the real deal and they may have just catapulted the world robotics community into its next era.

Willow Garage is turning the robotics world on its head by developing all of its hardware and software as open source platforms. They’ve spent millions developing the PR2 research robot. You can find all its specs and accomplishments in our previous coverage here, here, and here. Willow Garage is also the driving force behind the vast libraries of advanced algorithms that make up the Robot Operating System (ROS). Together these systems form an almost perfect incubator for innovation. Willow Garage’s open source hardware and software platforms keep researchers from having to start from scratch. Instead they have an ever increasing array of software tools and hardware solutions they can use straight out of the box. All for free. It’s a radical approach that is jump starting the robot revolution.

Today Willow Garage stood up and showed the world that they are ready to make personal robots a reality. The launch party was a clear statement: we believe in our approach, and we’re willing to put our money where our mouth is. Millions of dollars invested not in developing a marketable product but in furthering the joint endeavor that the robotics community is making together. And that investment is going to pay huge dividends.

Keenan and Berger made a great point in one of their presentations tonight. Pieter Abbeel’s team at Berkeley was trying to get a robot to fold towels. Their success rate was around 6%. Then, they sent students to work night shifts at Willow Garage, and develop a routine for the PR2. In a few months they had the robot folding 50 towels with a 100% success rate! All because of the ease in which the researchers were able to work with and adapt the PR2/ROS platforms. Now there are 11 institutions that will have full time access to 11 PR2 robots, for ten times as long (2 years), and with multiple teams at each site able to access the platform. A thousandfold increase in innovation? Ha, probably not….but maybe so. That’s the level of potential we’re talking about here.

No matter how much you want a personal robot, the people at Willow Garage want it more. Talking with their team, from founder Scott Hassan down to the technicians, it’s clear that one thing is driving this company: making robots a reality. As Co-director of Personal Robotics Eric Berger said at the launch party, personal robots should be like cars. An investment, surely, but something that nearly every household is capable of obtaining. Willow Garage wants to be one of the leaders that take us from our current stage, with robotics hidden away in the academic and industrial research labs of the world, and bring us to the envisioned cornucopia of robots.

We’re not going to see the personal robot arrive overnight. It’s going to take many years to move from the lab to the home. But with Willow Garage that process could happen much, much quicker. They are an accelerating force in robotics, and that is an exciting thing to see in action. Over the next two years we’ll have updates from these 11 groups as they check in with Willow Garage. If we have patience, we may witness some phenomenal improvements in ROS software. In another decade or two we may look back to the launch of this program as the start of a great period in the history of robots. Who knows, if this approach is truly successful we may see the open source paradigm spread into the other great technologies of our age: artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology. Willow Garage isn’t just making a robot, they’re making a new system.

Dawn is breaking outside my window. It feels appropriate.

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I for one welcome our open source robotic overlords.

[image credits: Willow Garage, Keith Kleiner]

[source: statements, interviews, releases made during the Willow Garage PR2 Beta Program launch party]