Willow Garage Spin-Off Brings UBR-1 Mobile Robotics Research Platform Out Of Stealth

Unbounded Robotics has come out of stealth — as the latest and last spin off from open source robotics maker and incubator Willow Garage, which created the PR2 robotics research and development platform, and was itself set up with a vision to make autonomous personal robotics. That mission provided a little tougher than founder, Scott Hassan, originally thought when he set it up back in 2006.

“I was a little bit optimistic, and I thought it would be much easier to do than it actually is, and the biggest problem is actually finding a market,” he told IEEE Spectrum back in August, when the news broke that most of Willow Garage’s employees were being absorbed into Suitable Technologies, a maker of a remote presence tech called Beam, and itself originally incubated out of Willow Garage.

Today, the last of Willow Garage’s robotic hatchlings has emerged into the light: Unbounded Robotics is carrying the PR2 torch out of Willow Garage (at least in spirit), with the launch of the one-armed bot UBR-1 — aka “a state-of-the-art ROS-based mobile manipulation platform designed for robot researchers and businesses”. (ROS being the open source robot operating system developed by Willow Garage and the Stanford AI Labs.)

While there’s a clear evolutionary path from PR2 to UBR-1, the latter’s makers stress it’s “not specifically designed as the heir apparent” to PR2. And is far more sophisticated — as you’d expect, with the two bots being separated by more than five years development work.

Here’s how UBR-1 is described in Unbounded’s launch blog:

With decades of robotic hardware and software experience, we have developed a mobile manipulation platform that offers advanced software and a sophisticated hardware exterior.  The one-armed robot is designed for human-scale tasks and comes pre-installed with Ubuntu Linux LTS and ROS, along with applications such as MoveIt! navigation, calibration, and joystick teleoperation.  The robot offers mobility, dexterity, manipulation, and navigation in a human-scale, ADA-compliant model.

The team has done extensive software integration to improve the user experience; MoveIt! being the highlight of that integration.  On the hardware front, the UBR-1 requires no calibration at start-up, has a workspace large enough for the robot to reach the ground as well as countertops, and was designed with extensibility in mind so that users can easily develop custom applications.

As a platform for robotics research, we are looking forward to seeing how the UBR-1 is put to use in both R&D and commercial markets.  Similar to an iPhone without any third-party apps, the greatest contribution of the UBR-1 will be the output from the robotics community that is able to take advantage of this sophisticated mobile manipulation platform.

The price-tag on UBR-1 is a cool $35,000, and Unbounded won’t be shipping the bot til summer 2014. It says it will be taking orders “soon” though. That price-tag may sound hefty but it’s orders of magnitude smaller than the cost of the PR2 — and its makers are anticipating that scaled down price will catalyse take-up of UBR-1 among research communities.

But it’s not just intended as an academic play thing. Unbounded is also aiming UBR-1 at the commercial space too, noting that it’s mobility and ability to navigate its environment give it an edge over some existing commercial robot rivals.

They also want UBR-1 to tap into the ROS-powered community of robot makers, and also note it can also be deployed in business automation scenarios. So plenty of potential owners could be taking a UBR-1 home.

“Unbounded’s UBR-1 is the natural heir apparent to the PR2 community, but at one-tenth the cost I anticipate strong uptake in the research and academic communities,” the startup told TechCrunch. “At the same time the UBR-1 robot is also capable of commercial deployments similar to Baxter, but with advanced navigation capabilities.  Finally, it’s a great addition to the growing ROS community.”

“Commercially, Baxter comes closest to competition. But Baxter works great when the robot doesn’t need to be mobile.  Unbounded’s robot is able to move and navigate it’s environment,” it added.Specs wise, UBR-1 weighs in at 73kg, has a maximum height of 52 inches and a base footprint of 19.5 inches, and 13 degrees of freedom (Base, Torso Lift, 7-DOF Arm, Gripper, and Pan Tilt Head). Its arm has seven degrees of freedom and can lift a 1.5kg payload.

UBR-1’s brains consist of a 4th Gen Intel i5 processor, with 8GB of RAM and a 120GB hard drive. The bot is good for three to five hours of continuous movement operation on a single charge.

Unbounded Robotics’s founding team consists of Eric Diehr, Lead Mechanical Engineer; Michael Ferguson, CTO; Derek King, Lead Systems Engineer; and Melonee Wise, CEO.

Check out the video below to see UBR-1 in action: