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Unbounded Robotics Unveils Co-Robot
The mysterious Willow Garage spin-off reveals what it's been working on this whole time.
By R. Colin Johnson, EE Times - Filed Oct 24, 2013

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The day fast approaches when that colleague you have lunch with in the office breakroom will not be a person at all. Earlier this year Unbounded Robotics Inc.  in Santa Clara, Calif., spun off from Willow Garage -- maker of the pioneering Personal Robot (now in its second generation, PR-2). The goal was to create an even more powerful mobile robot that was 10-times less expensive. The result was the $35,000 UBR-1 (pronounced "uber-one"), which the company unveils this week at RoboBusiness 2013 (Oct. 23-25, Santa Clara).

"Our staff were key members of the Willow Garage development team, working on projects three-to-five years out, but we wanted to do something sooner, so we spun off," said Unbounded Robotics CEO Melonee Wise in an interview with EE Times. "At Unbounded we started with a clean slate -- went back to what we thought people needed, while bringing down the cost of mobile robotics platforms."

The four-person company includes an electrical engineer (Lead Systems Engineer Derek King), a mechanical engineer (Lead Mechanical Engineer Eric Diehr), and a software engineer (Chief Technology Officer Michael Ferguson), who together with Wise designed the UBR-1 in under a year. Their primary directive was human safety, since as a co-robot the UBR-1 is designed to work alongside people without harming them even if they get in the way. Wise told us: 

    A co-robot is something that can work alongside you. We designed the arm so that any adult can overpower it, if they need to, plus we have sensors on the robot that allow the robot to sense its environment and actively plan routes around people and other obstacles. The laser scanner in the base and the visual sensor in its head create a model of the world that sees you, so it can drive around you. It's the same with the arm motion -- it does not plan blindly, but avoids bumping into things.

The Hokuyo laser scanner in the base is constantly calculating the distance to objects in front of the robot, while the head has a 3D visual sensor from PrimeSense Ltd. in Tel-Aviv, which enables real-time software to create a map of the world around the UBR-1. When fulfilling the commands of its user, the UBR-1 constantly updates its real-time map so that its navigation routines allow it to smoothly glide around obstacles even if they are moving.

The UBR-1 has a single arm with seven degrees of freedom -- seven motors driving seven joints in the arm, each of which has encoders to tell the robot what position it is in. That, combined with a six-degrees-of-freedom inertial measurement unit (a three-axis accelerometer and three-axis gyroscope) in the gripper, allows it to sense fine movements as well as to detect when it comes into contact with objects. In addition, two of the joints in the arm -- the wrist and the elbow -- can rotate continuously, which "really helps the robot get into hard-to-reach locations," according to Wise.

The gripper on the arm is called an "80-percent gripper" by Wise, because its parallel faces "can do 80 percent of the things you want a gripper to do." For the other 20 percent, it is replaceable with any number of specialized grippers -- from a suction cup to an electrostatic gripper. The arm also has the ability to reach all the way to the ground as well as to reach high up on shelves by virtue of the telescoping torso of the UBR-1.

Internally, the Ubuntu Linux LTS operating system is running on an Intel fourth-generation i5 processor, which communicates with an even dozen STMicroelectronic ARM-based microcontrollers, which manage the motors and moving parts. The base also has its own six-degrees-of-freedom MEMS inertial measurement unit.

The robot runs the open-source robot operating system (ROS) and all the applications available for it, such as MoveIt, for real-time planning, as well as a suite of custom applications supplied by Unbounded Robotics for navigation, calibration, and joystick tele-operation. The robot can also be programmed by dragging the arm around, with it recording those movements that can then be repeated.

The UBR-1 is designed for both robotics researchers as well as for businesses such as inventory control, where it can browse through warehouses picking up items that it then takes into the store for stocking shelves. Industrial applications include machine tending, such as removing finished parts from computerized numerical control (CNC) machines then inserting fresh stock for the next part.

Unbounded Robotics also envisions many other applications of its robots -- from delivering room service orders in hotels, to helping the elderly to age-in-place at home by retrieving such things as pill bottles or a glass of water or picking up the remote control dropped on the floor. Maybe the deluxe model will play cards, too.


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