One Armed Robot From Willow Garage Set to Expand Open Source Robotics


You can shake my hand for two hundred grand. I'm the PR2 SE.

Willow Garage is running a half off sale on their PR2 robot. Take half off the price and half off the robot. The PR2 is a two-armed world class research platform for personal robotics that uses open source software to power its growing arsenal of capabilities. Its full retail price is $400,000. Now, however, Willow Garage has announced the creation of the PR2 SE, a single armed version that will retail for $285,000 but be eligible for a 30% discount to open source developers, bringing the price tag down to $199,500. That means that more labs around the world will be able to get their hands on one of these research robots. With the second arm able to be installed at a later date, the PR2 SE is a gateway drug for engineers. As always, Willow Garage is hoping to hook scientists on their platforms and their approach to open source development in order to guide the fledgling personal robotics industry towards a brighter and more profitable future.

Over the past few years we’ve covered the PR2 quite often, but that’s because it’s done so much. I could write an entire article just listing its accomplishments, but instead here are a few favorite examples of its prowess: The PR2 can plug itself in to recharge, going on a 140 km marathon run just to prove how robust and self-reliant it was. It has enough sensor input and coordination to shoot pool. And it can even fetch you a beer. The PR2 is undeniably a great robot, even if it’s terribly expensive.

Part of the long term benefit of researching robots using the PR2 is the platform’s association with open source software. The PR2 uses code packets found in the Robot Operating System (ROS) library, and virtually every line of software is publicly shared, edited, and reused. Since Willow Garage gave away 11 of its PR2 robots to research institutions around the world, the amount of code on ROS has continued to grow exponentially. With so much of the basic code already figured out and shared via ROS, new labs can skip right to the good part – experimenting with the robot to further science. As they develop new code, PR2 owners will in turn share it with the community, allowing other researchers to build off their work. It’s like a giant game of leap frog that ends in a world full of awesome personal robots.

“From a standing start (robot off, never logged into a PR2 before), two of my graduate students were able to learn a map, get the navigational stack working, and drive the robot autonomously to the chair’s office on the other side of the building in less than two hours…I’ve been in robotics for about 20 years now, and this is the first time I’ve seen something work this well out of the box.”
—Bill Smart, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, and recent PR2 owner.

Yet Willow Garage has sold or given away less than twenty of the robots, putting the total number of PR2s out in the world around the mid thirties (5-10 are still at Willow Garage headquarters in Silicon Valley, last time I checked).

PR2 plugs in
As early PR2 prototypes showed, it only takes one arm to plug yourself in. The PR2 SE should have much the same capabilities of its sibling, but at a price that many more researchers should be able to afford.

That’s why the PR2 SE makes so much sense. Those labs with a history of open source development can get the next best thing to a PR2 but for less than $200k. That’s going to open a lot of doors. Willow Garage’s price for the PR2 SE puts it squarely in the target range for grants from the National Science Foundation and they know it. In their press release Willow Garage mentions the NSF National Robotics Initiative, whose goal is to accelerate the field of personal robotics. If you look at the grants already awarded for the National Robotics Initiative, you’ll see that the new PR2 SE will fit in perfectly – both in terms of price and research goals. Not only is Willow Garage making their platform more affordable, their aiming it at a growing bracket inside the robotics research community. Smart move.

Another smart part of the PR2 SE is that it’s upgradeable to a full PR2. The missing arm can simply be added in later. So researchers can buy the PR2 SE with their current grant, quickly produce some new work, apply for the next grant, and then upgrade their robot and do it again. Of course, a surprising amount of development in robots only uses one manipulator, so it may be a while before labs even need to upgrade in order to continue their work.

Willow Garage’s development of the PR2 (and now the PR2 SE) shows how acceleration-minded they are. Their 30% discount practically ensures that every buyer will participate in the open source community. (A similar discount with the PR2 was so appealing that only 1 or so of the 12+ labs that bought the PR2 did so at its full $400k price tag). Willow Garage hosts regular bi-monthly meetings for its developer community, fostering the sense of mutual cooperation. Meanwhile, the labs that buy the Willow Garage robot produce results faster, which in science is the surest path to financial success. Now, with the PR2 SE, there are even multiple entry points into this process so that more research lab can participate; which will only increase the rate of development in the community as a whole.

Building that community is essential because, by design, the PR2 simply isn’t a commercial robot. Willow Garage bots are research platforms, and even with the lower price tag of the PR2 SE I can’t imagine the potential market for research bots is orders of magnitude larger than the current level of sales suggest. There may only be a few hundred labs around the world (presently) that really are capable and willing to take on a PR2-class device. In my opinion, Willow Garage has to sell the community they build as much as the robot itself, because growing that community is the only way to lay the foundation for the construction of a personal robotics industry that Willow Garage is ultimately aiming to compete in.

I know I’m always cheerleading the PR2 and ROS, but that’s just because they make so much sense to me – both for Willow Garage and the robotics industry as a whole . Now is not the time for every robot researcher to toil on their own. A shared standard (not to mention a shared platform) benefits everyone, and will more quickly get us to a point where splitting off and working on proprietary projects is actually feasible. We’ve seen many exciting products in development that could be called “personal robots” and I’m sure that at least some of those will have a big impact on our world. But the really human-like robots – the ones you see in movies and would want in your home folding laundry and cooking dinner – those are going to take massive amounts of further research to create. Willow Garage is one of the companies helping us get there, and the PR2 SE is a great step in the right direction. Kudos.

[image credit: Willow Garage, Engadget]
[source: Willow Garage]