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Stand Watch For White Box Robots

New security robots with the brains of a PC could give new voice to the clichéd TV catch phrase “Danger. Danger, Will Robinson.”

Burick said among logical targets for PC-BOT are manufacturing environments, where robots could be used to collect information such as environment temperature and transfer it to a PC somewhere else in the facility. The companies also have been approached by an insurance company interested in placing some of the mobile units in elder-care facilities to ensure the quality of care. About 3,000 robots based on 914 PC-BOT should be available from White Box and its partners by year-end 2005, Burick said.

New security robots with the brains of a PC could give new voice to the clichéd TV catch phrase “Danger. Danger, Will Robinson.”

Robotics operating system vendor Frontline Robotics and mobile robot hardware creator White Box Robotics in May merged to develop a bare-bones platform that could bring the cost of such embedded security robots down into the $10,000 range by November. Indeed, the base hardware components, which are off-the-shelf, are typically priced at $1,200, according to executives at both companies.

Today, robots with similar features cost $40,000 to $60,000, said Tom Burick, founder and president of White Box Robotics. The new technology will bring that price point down. “This merger is about the marriage of defense-class technology into this low-cost robotics platform, made from mature technology,” echoed Rob Richards, COO of the combined company.

The development comes against a backdrop of growing sales of robots for home automation, service and manufacturing tasks. The U.N. Economic Commission and the International Federation of Robotics believe that revenue from this robotics segment will reach $5.2 billion this year, with the number of units increasing tenfold, mainly due to reduced costs. In other words, the segment is ripe for a wave of custom integration that can be provided by the custom-system community.

Frontline Robotics, Ottawa, makes an operating system known as Robot Open Control that enables teams of security robots to collaborate with each other. Pittsburgh-based White Box Robotics, meanwhile, is the brains behind PC-BOT, which is essentially a prototype for a mobile robot that uses off-the-shelf PC components as its brain.

Specifications for the 914 PC-BOT prototype call for a steel frame with injection-molded ABS plastic panels; a differential drive system featuring dual 12-volt stepper motors and commercial-grade drive wheels so the robot can get around; a removable motherboard and hard-drive mounting cage; a replaceable 24-volt input power supply; eight 5.25-inch drive bays; two 12-volt batteries; a proprietary I/O card for motor control and sensor input; sensors with Webcam vision, audio and obstacle-avoidance features; and the Robot Control Center software, developed atop a realtime Linux derivative.

Not everything is sold by White Box Robotics, which mainly manufactures the chassis and form factor of the robot. The 914 PC-BOT uses mainboards from Via Technologies designed to fit into systems requiring small form-factor cards. The recommended board is a Via Mini-ITX EPIA-TC with 1.0GHz Via CPU, integrated video, sound, Ethernet and USB 2.0. Other items that systems integrators can define: DDR RAM up to 1 Gbyte, the sound system, the type of drives the robot uses, biometrics peripherals and so forth.

DoDAAM Systems, a systems integration company in Korea that has already developed commercial-class security systems for airports based on the Frontline software, says it is evaluating the new hardware prototype and will eventually develop indoor security robots that use the technology.

“The White Box [Robotics] PC-BOT is a cost-effective platform for indoor security patrol. The model 914 is geared to consumers, and we will wait for the 10-series technology to make and sell indoor security robots,” said Jonathan Lee, vice president of engineering for DoDAAM, Daejeon City, Korea.

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