Internet 'recipes' make home-built robots for household use take shape

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Six months ago, while he was more than 4,000 miles away in England, someone activated Illah Nourbakhsh's small robot at its counter-top post in his Pittsburgh home.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Illah Nourbakhsh, associate professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, reassembles "Qwerkbot" after it took a tumble off the table. The TeRK Web site also has recipes to build robots that are wirelessly connected to the Internet.
Click photo for larger image.

As it began ambling about the kitchen, it captured the whole jaunt on its Web cam and then lost track of its surroundings, as any stranger would in an alien environment, and crashed into a set of dishes before it plunged off the Carnegie Mellon robotic professor's kitchen counter.

While the episode taught Mr. Nourbakhsh never to publicly log in to his Telepresence Robot in a room full of computer scientists -- you never know who might want to hack into your robot -- it also demonstrated the amazing capabilities of a home-built robot that could be controlled by a click of a button through the Internet.

The university's Telepresence Robot Kit, or TeRK, was unveiled yesterday to the media and the public. The kit, even if it does not take off as a commercial success, will allow children and adults with virtually no robotics training to build, program and operate their own do-it-yourself robots.

Furthermore, it uses technology that can be found in local hobby shops and hardware stores, making it accessible to anyone with a few extra dollars to spend on their own motorized plaything. And with the increasing frequency of broadband Internet service, the robot can be controlled from virtually anywhere, allowing users to guard their homes, watch their pets and cause general mischief from a computer miles or only feet away.

"What happens when people use hands-on technology?" Mr. Nourbakhsh asked yesterday with a working version of a TeRK, known as a Qwerkbot, situated behind him. "They come away with learning they can use technology to say the things they care about in their lives, whether they want to be environmental activists, political activists or drama persons."

The aim of the TeRK project is to sell these household robots, but the dream of the developers and creators is to transform how the average layperson views the field of robotics and how easily they can participate in their own technological revolution.

The roster of robots available for building, through Internet "recipes," or rather easy-to-follow photographed directions, includes: the Qwerkbot, a quad-wheeled bot with a mounted camera; the Qwerkbot+, a highly evolved version of its younger brother with a pan-tilt head for its camera; and the Flower, a 3-foot-tall robotic potted plant that can clasp items with its petals with seven-degrees of freedom.

Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette
Some of the items needed to build "Qwerkbot" robot minus the qwerk board.
Click photo for larger image.

Already tested in several schools, including one in Mt. Lebanon, the TeRK devices have proven to be not only educational but highly adaptable to a user's personality.

The first step in constructing a personal bot is buying a Qwerk processor. The processor is $349 and was produced by the Robotic Institute's Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab and Charmed Labs of Austin, Texas. The processor serves as the base of the Qwerkbot and the other TeRK bots.

With the addition of a few tools and parts from hobby shops, like a battery for remote control cars and two miniaturized motors, the robot can come together by following the Internet instructions.

"Our dream was to deliver a truly sophisticated robotics system and make it available to the public," said Mr. Nourbakhsh.

Jabbing at the mechanized Flower, Tom Lauwers, a 25-year-old Ph.D. student at Carnegie Mellon University who has been involved with the TeRK project for two years, demonstrated the quick reflexes of the motorized petals.

"You can even add a voice to the Flower through a microphone system," Mr. Lauwers noted. "It would be a bit Stephen Hawkingish -- very 1980s."

Mr. Lauwers agreed that the task of building a homemade robot was a bit "MacGyverish," in reference to the lead character from the television show who crafted bombs from "rubber bands and paper-clips."

But, he added, the potential for learning about robots by crafting unique designs that could dance, scale steps or even monitor your home would be fascinating to everyone.

"It's about giving the people access and ability to build and program their own versions," said Mr. Lauwers.

To learn more about TeRK and the program, go to www.terk.ri.cmu.edu


Moustafa Ayad can be reached at mayad@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1731.


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