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Willow Garage Robotics

After hearing an excellent talk by Willow Garage president Steven Cousins at PARC last Thursday, I wangled a visit to the company Monday and talked to a few more people.

Willow Garage is a research robotics company in Silicon Valley which has a unique mission for a start-up. They are oriented to making an impact on the field of robotics rather than making an immediate profit. Cousins explained it in these terms: the average robotics PhD student spends 90% of his time building a robot and the remaining 10% extending the state of the art. If Willow Garage succeeds, those numbers will be reversed.

Thus the WG design is very general and very robust, designed to be very hard to break and also fairly safe in the hands of an experimental, buggy, program. It’s a gorgeous piece of hardware. In a move that resonates strongly with Foresight, their software is open source.

Wearing my futurist hat, I asked several researchers at WG how strongly near-term improvements in processing power, a la Moore’s Law, would affect the performance of their robot. By and large they didn’t seem to think it was critical. The present bottleneck appears to be software — ideas, algorithms, integration, and experience.

The OSS community may be able to make a significant contribution here. And because it’s open source, anything you add would redound to the world at large and not just the company.

Rosie the robot maid by 2020? I wouldn’t bet against it.

5 Responses to “Willow Garage Robotics”

  1. Willow Garage Robotics | Everything News Portal! Says:

    [...] Read more … [...]

  2. Chris Peterson Says:

    The software is open source. What about the hardware: is it open as well?

  3. Ken Conley Says:

    Thanks for the writeup of Steve’s talk. To answer the question about open hardware, It’s designed to be very hackable: we intend for people to modify the sensor packages on the package to their own needs and we also have been working with other hand manufacturers to provide some compatibility there as well. Our software is also intended to be generalizable to other robot hardware/sensors and has already been ported several times. But the robot isn’t open in the open source sense like our software, mainly because even if we went through the effort of releasing every spec, its hard to imagine that others would benefit: there are too many parts with too high of a price tag for others to easily manufacture. That’s one of the reasons why we’re loaning out ten of the PR2s for others to use, i.e. making it as open as possible by providing access.

  4. Nathan Monson Says:

    CAD and PCB designs are available on their public SVN. But I don’t think their hardware strategy includes a 10,000 step Instructables site for building your own PR2 robot. ;) PR2 costs more than a house, and requires multidisciplinary expertise to build your own.

    Instead, I think their strategy is to loan actual PR2s to researchers for free, in return for their software enhancements.

    As for the software, it runs on much cheaper platforms. You don’t need a PR2 to play along at home. You can glue a laptop to a Roomba, buy a <$2K laser scanner, and have their OS up and running pretty quickly.

  5. Dan Donahoe Says:

    Nice video.

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