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Video: Google veteran builds beer-fetching robot, slashes price

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An upgraded version of the superstar personal robot PR2, from Willow Garage, is being offered for half price, with the intention of exponentially expanding the robotics industry.

Willow Garage, the silicon valley robotics company who made headlines with a personal robot that can open doors and plug itself into a standard wall socket to recharge, has updated their super star robotic system. The intention is to exponentially increase innovation and exploration within the robotics industry.

While their original PR2 (Personal Robot 2) might seem like a far cry from the personal robot dream that brings you coffee in bed, in 2009 it was a huge leap for the personal robotics industry. It's worth noting here that the personal robotics industry is gearing up to be significant, on the same level as the personal computing industry. (Jane Jetson's dream come true!)

Sure the carpet crunching Roomba cleaner can find and dock itself into a special charging station, but never before had a robot been able to both open multiple doors and find a power source to plug itself in. As a scientist quoted in the New York Times said, "Now they can escape and fend for themselves.”

For an immediate practical use for such a robot check out how these nerdy programmers, in the video below, get their beer when they're too lazy to leave their computer. Another group at MIT had their PR2 robot whip up a batch of cookies.

With this new personal robot, that hits markets this week, Willow Garage has been able to cut its price in half. That's because they have removed one of its arms.

The original PR2 robot came with two arms for $400,000. But this new version, the PR2 SE, ships with one arm, and since the arm is the most expensive and complicated part of the robot, this cuts the price down to $285,000. In addition Willow Garage is offering a 30 percent discount to those programmers with a proven track record using open source programming.

The goal with PR2 and PR2 SE is the development of a Robot Operating System (R.O.S.) that helps with the work of software developers worldwide. It's an open source system so that global contributions can have a hand in development. The idea is to create capabilities that are standard and generic so that they can be used as building blocks for more complicated projects.

Right now there are about 24 PR2 robots in use at commercial and academic research institutions. Willow Garage hopes that this new and much cheaper PR2 SE will allow the community to grow and establish new collaborations and increased code sharing.

Robotics researchers can sometimes spend up to two years just building a robot that they then can experiment with and build on. But with an operating system in place, like in the PR2 SE, the researchers can start working the moment the robot arrives at their door.

Bill Smart, Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at Washington University is a recent PR2 owner and is quoted in a release, "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."

This new one-armed PR2 allows more scientists and engineers to work a much faster pace. Willow Garage kept hearing from roboticists in the field who told them they simply didn't need two arms for their specific research. The second arm can also be added later on should scientists need to experiment with say, robot clapping.

The PR2 SE operating system remains the same as the two-armed PR2. Although Willow Garage did install Microsoft Kinect which complements the laser sensor system already in place. While Kinect is a much more crude sensor system, it was cheap to add (at about $125), and enhances the overall data stream the robot is able to collect.

Photo: PR2, Willow Garage

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure