At Unbounded Robotics, Smart Compromises Bring Down Costs

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the designs for UBR-1’s mechanical and electrical systems. In June, the company sent the design specs out to vendors to begin fabricating the required steel, aluminum, and plastic parts. In July and August, “every day was Christmas,” Wise says, as packages containing the new parts started to come in. The last of the parts arrived in September, and as soon as Wise and her team assembled the robots and turned them on, “they worked,” Wise says matter-of-factly. “If that hadn’t happened, we would have missed RoboBusiness.”

Chalk it up to thorough planning. “Having a clear indication and specification of where the design is going; setting a schedule and following it—I know it sounds absurd, but those are the things that have enabled us to be so lean,” Wise says.

3. Build on Reusable Components

There’s another element to the fast progress at Unbounded: it didn’t have to invent software for the robot. For that, there’s ROS, which Wise helped to develop at Willow Garage. More than just an operating system, ROS is also a simulation environment and planning tool; before Unbounded ever turned on UBR-1, it had a working model of the robot in ROS, allowing it to rehearse different motions and iron out problems before sending the specs for the parts to vendors.

Now overseen by the Open Source Robotics Foundation and used by hundreds of robotics teams around the world, ROS is probably the single most important product to come out of Willow Garage. “It’s a ginormous success story,” Wise says. “Without ROS it would have been very hard for us to turn the robot on in September and end up at RoboBusiness doing a demo in October.”

Unbounded also built on the co-founders’ experience with PR2, especially the design of the arm. “The underlying mechanism is significantly different, but the kinematic configuration is the same,” Wise says. That’s a reference to the specific motions that each segment of the arm can perform: panning, pitching, and rolling at the shoulder, pitching and rolling at the elbow, and pitching and rolling at the wrist. (Those are the “seven degrees of freedom” that Wise refers to in the video above).

The big preoccupation at Unbounded now is testing UBR-1 in actual workplaces—which kinds, Wise can’t yet say, because of non-disclosure agreements with partners. The hope is that these partners will help the company discover which tasks the robot is uniquely suited for—or how it can be adapted for jobs that no one would have thought to give to a robot before.

“I think the general problem in robotics is that there aren’t enough robots for people to get experience with,’” Wise says. “We will make headway in a niche space as more and more people start trying our platform and saying, ‘This is an 80 percent solution.’ Once you start seeing those 80 percent solutions, you start seeing other needs. And then people see how the platform can be modified to make solutions for those needs.”

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

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One response to “At Unbounded Robotics, Smart Compromises Bring Down Costs”

  1. CrvenaZvezda says:

    Hope they really succeed! I personally would without thinking spend up to US $1500 for a laundry folding robot.