More institutions are buying into Willow Garage's vision for accelerating the field of robotics. The Silicon Valley startup announced that it recently sold its PR2 robots to four new research groups. Willow Garage has already shipped new bots to Samsung's resarch center in Suwon, South Korea, and the University of Washington in Seattle. Soon others will arrive at George Washington University in DC and the CNRS Laboratory of Analysis and Architecture of Systems (LAAS-CNRS) in Toulouse, France. Quite the global spread. At $400,000 each these robots aren't cheap, but they come backed by an ever expanding collection of professional quality open source software via the Robotic Operating System (ROS) library - a free resource that can be utilized by many different robots, including the PR2. With code found on ROS, the PR2 robot has been programmed to accomplish an incredible variety of tasks. Willow Garage highlights these successes in their newest video montage shown below. Four more world-class research institutions adopting the PR2 platform and ROS mean that the global community of mutually supportive robotics engineers are receiving a valuable boost.
When Willow Garage announced it would begin sales of the PR2 back in September it also described a sharp discount (down to $280,000) for institutions with a history of open source contributions. It's no surprise then, that some of the four new buyers (Willow Garage will not comment on which) will be receiving their new robots on the cheap (relatively speaking). Why would Willow Garage voluntarily cut into its profit margins? Community building is more important. Earlier this year, the company gave away 11 of its PR2 robots for free simply to help enliven the industry and generate more innovations for its platform (known as the PR2 Beta Program). There's little doubt that Willow Garage is taking a long term vision for its own growth, and it knows it can create the personal robot of the future much faster if the entire global collection of robotics engineers work together.
The medium for that cooperation is ROS. The ROS library recently turned three years old, and its collection of code packages and robotics algorithms has been growing at an exponential rate. Partly that growth is due to the work of Willow Garage engineers and their constant additions to the library. Mostly, however, it's due to the ever expanding group of research institutions that are using ROS. Because it is open source, engineers can download, use, update, and upload ROS code, and adapt it for any number of different robot platforms. Samsung, University of Washington, George Washington University and LAAS-CNRS will be able to jump right into major development because so much of the groundwork in hardware and software has already been created. According to an engineer at Samsung, "we were programming on and navigating the PR2 in less than one day."
There are more than 50 bots that use ROS, but the PR2 is definitely the flagship of the group. It has advanced sensors, hands, and stability that give it a wide range of possible applications. In the following video you'll see the PR2 fold towels, fetch beers, and perform dozens of other tasks. Many of these clips show work performed at Willow Garage, but you'll also see results from the 11 teams that received PR2s during the Beta Program. Make sure to watch at 2:18 where you'll see a great preview of a new project featuring the XBox Kinect 3D sensor:
So if the PR2 and ROS are such an awesome combination, what are the four new teams going to do with them? According to Willow Garage, Samsung will be using its purchase "to enhance their existing robotics research." That's a little vague, but as WG points out, Korea is looking to put a robot in every home by 2020 - we should expect some exciting developments in personal robotics out of Samsung in the years ahead.
Professor Joshua Smith received the PR2 at the University of Washington on November 2nd. Smith has a history of working with sensors, and finding new ways to power them. He was recently at Intel working on wireless energy links. It should be interesting to see what he can do with the PR2's collection of IR sensors, lasers, and cameras.
Rachid Alami, part of the Robots and Artificial Intelligence group, will be receiving the PR2 at LAAS-CNRS. According to Willow Garage: "Alami and his colleagues have earmarked the PR2 for the development of high level interactive and cognitive functions in the context of an ambient intelligent system for assistance, such as housekeeping for seniors."
At George Washington University, the PR2 will be greeted by Evan Drumwright. His interest is to get robots performing occupational tasks. We've seen many developers looking for ways to incorporate robotics into unexplored realms of manual labor, and Drumwright is no exception. Willow Garage tells us we should look to Drumwright for "advances in dynamic robotic simulation, motion planning, and collision detection algorithms."
Currently there are just 16 research institutions with PR2 robots around the world (4 new buyers, 11 Beta Program recipients, and Willow Garage themselves), but the group of ROS developers is much larger, and the general open source robotics community even larger still. Every team that contributes to the open development of robotics helps accelerate the growth of the industry as a whole. The four new entrants have valuable skills that could strengthen the open source robotics community and deepen the level of tasks that personal robots can accomplish. Even if none of the new PR2 recipients contributes a single packet to ROS, however, their purchase of the robot alone adds to Willow Garage's clout. Bottomline, one way or another these sales are a good sign that open source robotics is working. With any luck, open robotics will keep growing and the shared code will continue to pile up exponentially.
[image and video credits: Willow Garage]
[source: Willow Garage]