Sure, we've all seen robots being controlled by a mobile phone, but how about a robot that is your mobile phone. Cellbots, an open source project based in Silicon Valley, has developed simple robots that incorporate smart phones into their frames. The phone is used to command and even power its robotic exoskeleton. Cellbots has created tanks, trucks, and various other wheeled bots, and provides all the information you need to replicate their results on your own, including the requisite software code for the phone. You can build your own robot shell for less than $50! Check out some of their many phone-robot hybrids in the videos below. They've experimented with everything from voice commands to compass navigation - this is pretty cool stuff.
Mobile phones have become the nexus for an impressive collection of electronic capabilities. Bluetooth signals, WiFi signals, GPS tracking, text messages - your smart phone can communicate in a half dozen ways (sometimes more) and has plenty of processing power. Perhaps it's no surprise then that Cellbots looked at the modern smart phone and saw a potential robot brain. In hindsight it seems a natural progression that as we place more and more computing power into a phone, it will become capable of controlling more and more outside of itself. Eventually, mobile devices may become powerful enough to serve as a communications nexus for the smart systems (such as cybernetic medical implants) that we'll have on our own bodies, as well as serving as the portal to our digitally enabled homes, vehicles, and clothes.
In the following videos from Cellbots, you'll see how the open source team is able to harness different smart phone capabilities including voice recognition, text-to-speech, compass orientation, remote commands, audio recoding, GPS, and XMPP chat:
Looking at the Cellbots themselves, it's hard to know exactly where this project may be evolving. We've gotten so used to seeing phones as control units that watching them be incorporated into robots themselves is a little jarring. Do you really want to put a $400 smart phone on a collection of cardboard, servos, and Arduino boards? I mean, it looks really cool, but it's not the safest location to leave your Android or iPhone. What's the practical application here?
In the short term there may not be one. And I'm not sure there has to be one anyway. I'm taking Cellbots as an interesting proof-of-concept. We've seen many open source projects that can help you build a robot. Willow Garage, for example, is using an open source robot and library to revolutionize robotics research. Their PR2 robot can also be controlled via a smart phone through its web browser interface. Yet you can't slap together a Willow Garage PR2 in a day the way you can a Cellbot. By using a well-explored technology like smart phones as a control and command hub for robots, Cellbots could be taking us a step closer to a sort of plug-n-play approach to making your own bot.
We already have tons of high quality robot building kits. Maybe one day hacking together a sophisticated robot will be as easy as plugging a smart phone into an assembled kit and downloading the right open source code. Heck, why stop at kits, we'll have motorized wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs. The hacked humanoid robot of the future may practically be off-the-shelf. For now, I'm waiting to see if Cellbots will start to explore arms and grasping mechanisms. Having a phone wheel around is cool, but I'd love one that could bring me a drink.
[image credit: Cellbots]