Until someone develops a common platform for building robots (think of the combination of Windows and Intel that has made PCs so accessible), the technology will remain elusive to the general public. At least that's the contention of Willow Garage, Inc., a Menlo Park, Calif. company that Wednesday made its PR2 personal robot available to the public.

PR2 comes with the basics: a mobile base, two arms for manipulation, a suite of sensors and two computers, each with eight processing cores, 24 gigabytes of RAM and two terabytes of hard disk . Willow Garage is hoping that its robot will blossom with the help of an open community of devoted engineers and software developers that can build on the PR2's basics and share their breakthroughs with each other. Call it open source for robots.

The field of robotics needs to become more standardized if it is to flourish, says Keenan Wyrobek, co-director of Willow Garage's Personal Robotics Program. "PR2 is all about taking us from where we are today to where you can pretty much make your own robot as needed," he says.

The PR2 comes with a robot operating system (ROS), which handles the robot's computation and hardware manipulation functions, to name a few. The ROS, like open-source software, is free and can be tweaked by users, as long as any improvements are shared back with the rest of the community of PR2 and ROS users. This community is key to the PR2's success because it opens up the project to ideas and input from engineers around the world who know how to write programs for robotics navigation, vision, movement and other functions.

In terms of hardware, the PR2 is less open-source and more modular, with arms, grippers, sensors and other interchangeable parts that can be improved upon by the robots' users. Wyrobek hopes that an independent industry will form to develop hardware improvements and extensions to the PR2, much the way companies sell software and peripherals for PCs.

Through the ongoing creation of standardized components, this community is expected also to play a role in lowering the PR2's $400,000 price tag over time. A parallel would be the way PC makers were able to dramatically lower prices by standardizing on the so-called "Wintel" platform, which is the Microsoft Windows operating system running on computer powered by Intel processors. In the meantime, Willow Garage is offering discounted PR2s (at $280,000) to people who have made significant contributions to the open source community by writing and releasing code and other resources. "When evaluating an application, we will look at the code you have made available in a public repository, as well as accompanying documentation and tutorials," according to the company's Web site. "We will also look to see if other people are using your code. Finally, we will consider your ability to release as open source the code you would produce with the PR2." There is no cap on the number of discounted PR2s the company will offer.

Willow Garage probed the market in advance of its official launch with a beta-testing program, through which the company distributed 11 robots to teams of engineers willing to experiment with the robot's basic functions. It was the beginning of a community that Wyrobek hopes will exchange ideas for improving the technology with each other and with his company. "It's sort of greasing the wheels," he admits. PR2 owners contribute the ideas and applications to ROS.org, a Web site dedicated to the robot's budding community.

One beta tester, Georgia Tech in Atlanta, is tweaking the personal robot so that it can help senior citizens. The school's Healthcare Robotics Lab is developing software for PR2s named Cody and EL-E so that they can open doors and drawers and flip light switches guided by a laser pointer, radio signals or touch.

The Bosch Research and Technology Center in Palo Alto, Calif., part of electronics and appliances maker The Bosch Group, has begun a two-year project to integrate its advanced sensor technology—including micro electro-mechanical system (MEMS) accelerometers, gyros and force sensors, and air pressure sensors—to improve the PR2's performance and reliability. Other beta testing sites include Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.).

See video of an early application for which the PR2 proved to be a good fit:


Images and video of PR2 courtesy of Willow Garage