New robots connect to the Web

Designed to be built with easily obtainable parts, the Telepresence Robot Kit (TeRK) was introduced by associate robotics professor Illah Nourbakhsh and his team of researchers at the Center for Innovative Robotics last Wednesday.

TeRK is a robot kit that can be built by virtually anyone, from children to adults, and it is meant for people with little or no programming background.

According to a Carnegie Mellon press release, Nourbakhsh has built a robot that “can be easily customized and linked wirelessly to the Internet.” This creation came after a year and a half of research into how to control a robot using technology identical to microchips found in cell phones.

Developing this technology can be explained in three steps. Nourbakhsh said, “The first step was making a remote that had a full operating system and was able to control the robot.” The robot controller, called the Qwerk, can control the robot, search for wireless signals, and connect to the Internet once it is activated.

The second step, or “ingredient,” in the creation of a robot is writing a recipe that uses parts that are available to the public. These parts do not need to be welded or molded, and can generally be bought at home improvement stores. The recipe must also include detailed, step-by-step instructions that people can understand.

Although these robots consist of easily obtainable parts, they are not the robot kits that one is apt to find in stores. Nourbakhsh said that the end product will be a “truly sophisticated robot.”

The third ingredient in the robot’s creation is software that most people can understand without knowing a particular programming language. There are a number of different software resources available on the TeRK website that allow users to build robots that can respond to motion and sound.

Code to program the robot is also open source, meaning that anyone can develop a program for a TeRK. For the younger crowd, the TeRK website provides a visual user interface that is easy for children to follow.

In the Carnegie Mellon press release, Nourbakhsh stated “The Internet connection means the robots are much more global. Not only can the robot be operated remotely at any location with a wireless Internet connection, but it can also send photos or video, respond to RSS feeds, or access the Internet to find information.”

Nourbakhsh said that these “robots are a part of the Internet community, you can share with anyone.”

The robots can respond to any stimulus on the Internet. For example, one can program the flower bot (a robot that looks like a flower with six petals) to open its petals when the stock market is up, and to close its petals when the stock market is down.

During his presentation at the Center for Innovative Robotics, Nourbakhsh connected to a robot through the Internet in the room. The robot had a video camera that provided a live web feed of the presentation. Then, he connected to another robot in his lab, and viewers were able to see the activities going on in Nourbakhsh’s lab. He also connected to a room where a different robot was watching over a dog.

Other uses for the robots include environmental sensors for air quality and sound pollution, and the flower bot can also play a game of catch with its petals.

The teddy bot, on the other hand, is a stuffed animal with sensors in his ears and arms that can be programmed to respond to stimuli with facial expressions.

Robots like the flower bot and the teddy bot were built to break the unconventional ideals of the robot. Emily Hamner, senior research associate for Nourbakhsh, said “robots don’t have to be mechanical looking, they can be cute and cuddly,” like the teddy bot she created.

Nourbakhsh and his team are interested in using these robots in education.

Nourbakhsh said “These students can learn lifelong skills such as problem solving, the idea that they can influence technology and that they can incorporate the ideas in their lives.”

The TeRK team wants formal education centers, community centers, and home markets to get on board with this technology. They hope that teachers and parents can get together with their kids for a hands-on learning experience.

New robot designs and software can be posted and added to the website by anyone. Robot enthusiasts from all over the world have already submitted new robot designs and discussed ideas on the online forum.

The TeRK team is currently creating a curriculum for the classroom, a national robotics badge for Girl Scouts, Robo Diaries, and additional development on the internet.

One of Hamner’s roles in this project is to develop the robot-based curriculum for middle school children. She and the rest of the team have already gone to different schools and set up robot clubs for students to build TeRKs.

Hamner said that her favorite part about being a part of the research team is “working with the kids and seeing how excited they are, and especially how the girls feel empowered.” Nourbakhsh said that boys and girls are equally interested in the robots.

Doctoral robotics student and project developer Tom Lauwers said that one of his favorite aspects of developing these robot packages is “seeing the kids form stronger bonds with each other and make new friends.”

Nourbakhsh said that he “isn’t afraid of the robots getting into the wrong hands.” This is because the robots are highly secure. In particular, one can set access rights to determine who controls the robot.