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Open source droids

02/10/2007. Contributed by Jessica Martin

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To help jumpstart the development of future robots, a firm called Willow Garage is developing a standardised robotics platform so that we can all have an R2 unit in our homes.

“In the same way that personal computers provided a platform on which word processors and spreadsheets could be developed, a robust robotics platform will provide a foundation for the next generation of robotics applications,” Steve Cousins, president of Willow Garage, told “An open and affordable platform will let researchers and entrepreneurs focus on applications and avoid having to reinvent the wheel. It is our goal, in conjunction with the excellent work being done at Stanford, to develop and distribute that platform.”

The company also said that it has donated $850,000 to the Stanford Computer Science Lab under the direction of Assistant Professor Andrew Ng. That Lab is currently developing advanced open source software for personal robotics. The robotic platform provided by Willow Garage, consisting of both hardware and software, is intended to give developers worldwide a standard set of tools for robotics development.

In the STAIR (STanford AI Robot) project, Professor Ng and his team are developing a robot that navigates home and office environments, picking up and interacting with objects and tools. It is expected that the next generation of personal robots will expand on these capabilities and carry out an even larger range of household tasks.

Ng and his colleague, Professor Ken Salisbury, are excited about the opportunity to advance the development of personal robotics.

“Over the long term, we hope to build robots that are general purpose and can perform many different tasks such as fetching and delivering items, tidying up a room and preparing meals. A robot capable of these tasks will revolutionize both home and office automation, leading the way to important applications from home assistants to elder care. Carrying out such tasks, however, will require significant advances in integrating learning with manipulation, perception, spoken dialog and reasoning,” Ng told the Nest. “That integration will take robotics to a new level - and enable the robotics community to build applications in a way that parallels the evolution of applications for the personal computer.”

The efforts of Willow Garage and Stanford University bode aim to break new ground in artificial intelligence research and lay the groundwork for helping people live, and maintain, fuller lives with their new droid friends.

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