Take Home an Open Source Robot from Willow Garage for $400,000

Menlo Park, CA-based Willow Garage is one of a growing number of companies producing robots meant to navigate everyday human environments rather than factory floors or the surfaces of distant planets. As the New York Times described in an article last week, for example, early testers at the Mozilla Corporation are using the company’s Texai robot, which runs largely on open-source software, as a remote presence device, allowing workers to attend meetings and visit people in the office via an Internet video connection.

And now anybody can buy a related Willow Garage robot of their own for a modest $400,000—or just $280,000 for those who can demonstrate their open-source cred. Willow Garage announced on its blog Tuesday night that its PR2 model is commercially available for the first time.

Looking like a chunky, legless cousin of Honda’s walking Asimo robot—the PR2 slides on casters rather than walking—the machine isn’t designed for any specific application, but rather as a platform for innovation in robotics. It features manipulating arms for grabbing and carrying things, stereo cameras for eyes, and a laser scanner for navigation. Everything is modular, removable, and extensible, meaning robot builders could adapt it to do anything from nursing care to factory work, without having to create everything from scratch.

PR2 from Willow GarageWillow Garage has supplied 11 PR2 units to beta testers in robotics labs, such as the Healthcare Robotics Lab at Georgia Tech and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT. But now the company says it’s ready for commercial production. “This is an exciting milestone for Willow Garage as making PR2 broadly available has been a major goal of ours,” Keenan Wyrobek, co-director of Willow Garage’s personal robotics program, wrote on the company blog. “With PR2 now commercially available, we can’t want to see what our new users will develop on our platform.”

Through a “discount award program,” buyers with a track record of creating and releasing open-source code will be eligible for a $120,000 discount off the PR2’s base price of $400,000. Applicants for the discount must submit a two-page outline of their open-source contributions and their plans for sharing any new code they produce for the PR2.

Willow Garage was founded by Scott Hassan, the founder of eGroups (now Yahoo Groups) and an early employee at Google. The company says it wants to “lay the groundwork for the use of personal robotics applications in everyday life” by investing in open-source software and operating systems for robots as well as non-patented “open platforms” for basic hardware components such as PR2’s grasping arms.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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