Google, Intel, and Microsoft are funding what may become a robot invasion. Money from the three tech companies has enabled researchers at Carnegie Mellon University to create a new series of Internet-connected robots that almost anyone can build using off-the-shelf parts.
As part of the Telepresence Robot Kit (TeRK), a joint effort unveiled last summer between the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and Charmed Labs, associate professor of robotics Illah Nourbakhsh and members of his Community Robotics, Education, and Technology Empowerment (CREATE) Lab have created a series of "recipes" for robot building. (Those who recall The Twilight Zone will be relieved to find that "To Serve Man" is not among them.)
Possible robots range from a three-wheeled model with a mounted camera to a sensor-equipped flower.
The project's goal is to expand involvement in robotics.
The heart of the TeRK is the robot controller, called Qwerk, available from the Charmed Labs Web site ($349). The unit functions as an electronic brain and handles wireless Internet connectivity, motion control, and functions like sending and receiving photos or video, responding to RSS feeds, and searching the Net.
Qwerk is a Linux-based computer. It uses a field-programmable gate array to control motors, servos, cameras, amplifiers, and other devices. It also can accept USB peripheral devices, such as Web cameras and GPS receivers.
"We leveraged several low-cost, yet high-performance components that were originally developed for the consumer electronics industry when we designed Qwerk," said Rich LeGrand, president of Charmed Labs, in a statement. "The result is a cost-effective robot controller with impressive capabilities."
The robots are intended for practical uses, in addition to education and entertainment. They can be used for home or pet monitoring, for example. A future recipe being developed includes environmental sensors for measuring noise and air pollution.
Nourbakhsh doesn't subscribe "to geeky notions of what robots should be." That may explain one of the recipes that he and his team are working on: a controllable stuffed teddy bear.