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Jul 11

Willow Garage

Willow Road is one of the roads that I take to get back home from the 101 highway that runs up the San Francisco peninsula. It twists its way through a large residential area in Menlo Park and is lined with houses and quiet side streets. But there, literally in the middle of suburbia, is a company called Willow Garage. I’ve passed it many times without knowing it was there.

The name is misleading. It is not a garage in the classical start-up sense of the word, à la Microsoft’s or Apple’s origins. It’s one large lab, and they do robots.

I attended a research study there as a participant. I can’t write about the study, but an intern there did give me a tour of the facilities. Willow designs and manufactures the hardware and software for a range of robots – from tiny ones resembling large Roombas, to large human sized ones.

I stepped into a lab which contained four or five PR2-model robots. The PR2 robot is essentially a 200 kilo box on wheels, on which is mounted two articulated arms, a computer, and a panoply of visual sensors (including a Kinect unit, to give it depth perception). The arms weigh around 50 kilos each and have been specially weighted so they don’t drop and pulverize whatever is beneath them if the robot loses power. One of Willow’s goals is to ensure that robots working in a human-rich environment don’t start maiming humans unintentionally (or intentionally… but they don’t have to worry about that just yet). Robotics are used extensively in manufacturing and factory environments, but when you start to use them in common everyday places, the approach has to be a bit different. Oh yeah, and I should mention that the price tag for each PR2 is a cool $400,000. I got to touch it.

Outside the lab was the largest flowchart I’ve ever seen in my life. Someone had printed out what seemed to be 100 sheets of paper and stuck them together on the wall of a long corridor. On each page was tens of tiny boxes with schematic diagrams in each one, all linked by a bewildering array of arrows. My guide told me that these were blueprints on how to put together a PR2.

Willow pumps out about 4-5 PR2s each month, and ships them off around the world, mostly to universities for robotics research. They also are building a Robot OS, which is in its infancy given that they still need to figure out what type of robots work best around humans. This summer, they have more than a dozen interns working for them, so a garage it is not.

Willow Garage was founded by Scott Hassan, a robotics enthusiast who made his millions after his start-up eGroups was bought by Yahoo! during the dot com boom, and then again after he joined Google. The company is almost 5 years old, but the impression I got was that this was a field still in its infancy. Based on what I saw, which looked like it was on the cutting edge, I doubt we’ll see robots become a part of household life for at least another decade or two. The costs are so high, the technology is still experimental, and there’s still a lot of work to be done on both the hardware and software sides.

Until then, we’ll have to make do with dinky little robots who bump into walls and furniture as they attempt to suck up the dirt and dust off our floors. But even so, there’s still progress to be made, as one Finnish person found out. In an infamous tweet, he wrote:

Perkele!!! Our dog had made a big poo on the floor during the day. Next, our iRobot did its 90-min daily sweep! Yes, it is Everywhere.

  9:47pm  •  Science & Technology  •   •  Tweet This  •  Add a comment

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