Franken-bot comes to life (for less $$$ than an iPad)

By Sean Lorenz | December 28, 2010

Written by: Sean Patrick
Class Participants:
Aaron Berliner, Ben Chandler, Byron Galbraith, Sean Lorenz, Sam Michalka, Sean Patrick, Jeremy Wurbs

Robots are strong. Robots are delicate. They’re even glamorous. But can you build one?

Actually, yes - you can. And you can do it without breaking the bank, too.

These days, there are plenty of commercial robotics kits available to hobbyists, requiring varying degrees of skill to build and operate. If you’re willing to commit a few hundred dollars exclusively to building robots, they’re great. If you’re not already a robot fanatic, though, you’re probably a little hesitant about spending that much money on something that - let’s face it - will probably spend the majority of its life in the attic. But what if you could build a robot out of stuff that you already own or, failing that, stuff you won’t regret buying?

Recently, students at Boston University’s department of Cognitive and Neural Systems did exactly that. As part of a class project this fall, students built a robot capable of identifying a speaker and moving towards him or her while avoiding obstacles in its way. The really cool part, though, is that the robot was built out of common consumer electronics for around $600. The parts list consists of a netbook, a webcam, a couple of microphones, and an iRobot Create. You might recognize the Create – its cousin, the Roomba, is probably vacuuming your carpet right now. In fact, there’s no reason you couldn’t use the Roomba along with a netbook to make your own mobile robot.

Affectionately dubbed the “Franken-bot” by its creators, the BU robot uses a variety of custom algorithms and neural network models to navigate its environment, but there are plenty of existing tools that can be used to drive a DIY robot, too. Libraries for popular scripting languages like MATLAB and Python are designed to get you up and running without the hassle of writing a driver for the Roomba, and libraries like OpenCV give you powerful computer vision tools without a lot of hassle. The possibilities don’t end with software, though. Recently, a grad student at MIT wired up a Kinect - yes, the Xbox 360 peripheral - to an iRobot Create to generate 3D maps of the robot’s environment.

60 years ago, the idea of personal robotics was as alien as the idea of personal computing (although that didn’t stop some dedicated hobbyists). But in hindsight, as computers became smaller, faster, and cheaper, it seems inevitable that the PC would be born. Will we look back, years from now, and wonder how we got by in the old days, before the advent of the personal robot? Will the trend of cheap, easy robotics continue until we can all put together our own androids, like Anakin Skywalker and C-3PO?

Maybe not. After all, it seems preposterous to think that someday you’ll be able to build a robot out of things that are just lying around the house. But if you’re looking for Christmas gift ideas and you have a budding roboticist in the house, can we recommend a laptop and a vacuum? If nothing else, your carpet will be cleaner.

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