Next Big Trend: Robots That Follow You Around

Next Big Trend: Robots That Follow You Around
BY TIM MOYNIHAN   10.13.14  |   6:30 AM 

Dozens of robots will descend upon the Back Bay for the RoboBusiness conference in Boston this week. A few of them may even try following you home.

Within the world of robots and drones, there is a growing trend toward tailing you—with your permission in this case. It’s great for recreational use, where unmanned aerial vehicles, equipped with GoPro cameras, create mesmerizing video selfies for far less than the cost of renting a helicopter and hiring a film crew.

3D Robotics’ Iris+ drone and its DroidPlanner 2.0 software have a “Follow Me” mode for just these kinds of shots, as do models from Hexo+ and AirDog. And this being the mobile era, the Iris+ and Hexo+ work their magic by connecting to your smartphone and using its GPS data as a flight plan. The AirDog system requires wearing or carrying a little wireless module called an AirLeash.

Such tech makes sense in a drone, but more and more terrestrial machines are adopting “follow the leader” functions. For example, the CaddyTrek schleps your clubs around the golf course by tracking a belt-mounted module that doubles as a remote control. Yes, it’s been out for a few years, but a new wave of loyal ‘bots that shadow you is right around the corner.

The use cases extend beyond entertainment. Five Elements Robotics’ Budgee, a “friendly robot assistant” designed for the elderly and handicapped, is a lightweight pack mule with a top speed of 2.4 mph. If you’re walking too fast for it to keep up, it’ll say so, with an app that lets you tailor the message. You can also program the color of its eyes, which have different sizes “inspired by my daughter’s sock puppets,” says Five Elements CEO Wendy Roberts.

Budgee is easily folded and weighs just 20 pounds, yet it lugs up to 50 pounds of stuff. The robot runs up to 10 hours on a charge, and although it’s rain-resistant, don’t take it swimming. Not that it would follow you into the pool anyway. Sensors help keep it from falling down stairs, running into obstacles or going off a cliff.

The follow function works through sonar sensors embedded in Budgee’s “ears.” To make it work, owners clip a small module onto the back of his their belt and use the app to set the distance at which their little friend follows. Roberts says the company is working on a joystick interface that will make the robot more easily controlled for those who use wheelchairs.

The robotic assistant should be available in January of next year for $1,400.

There’s a more complex tracking system within Harvest Automation’s industrial robots, which are designed for agricultural and manufacturing environments. The plant-shuttling HV-100, nicknamed Harvey, is already in use. Harvest Automation co-founder and COO Charles Grinnell says there are 100 zipping around in plant nurseries nationwide. LED sensors housed in orange cases allow it to follow patterns taped out on the floor; a LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensor allows it to detect obstacles to avoid and humans to follow.

LIDAR is what makes these robots very precise and—at $30,000 apiece—much more expensive.

“We use a LIDAR for Follow Me, [because] we already have it onboard for more complex object detection tasks the robot must perform,” says Grinnell. “Our robot needs to very accurately position plants in the fields at our customers, and that requires very accurate and long-distance sensing. LIDARs that meet our requirements—accuracy, all weather, full sun—are $2,000 to $3,000 at this point.”

The sensor technology uses sweeping lasers to sense and calculate 3-D objects in front of it, and it is incredibly hard to shake once it’s following you. Despite being 20 inches tall, it’d be a nightmare playing hoops against the HV-100. It sticks to your every move like gum on hair. If you get freaked out or, more appropriately, there’s an emergency, there’s a big orange pull-stop on top. Yank it and the robot shuts down immediately.

According to Grinnell, the HV-100’s follow mode has a very practical use-case behind it. Plant nurseries use it to lead their teams of plant bots on and off the work area; it’s much easier to have a group of them follow a person rather than having to remote-control the robots individually. The LIDAR technology is also essential for the robots to detect the plants in front of them.

The company’s new robot, currently a prototype, is designed for warehouses and manufacturing plants. It’s expected to be cheaper: Harvest Automation has ditched the line-following LED sensors in favor of LIDAR alone. Grinnell says factory-friendly bots don’t need the same taped-off guide lines.

Budgee and Harvey will be on display alongside robots and related tech from 80 other companies at the 10th annual RoboBusiness 2014 conference. As robotic development has evolved and become more affordable, that show has grown quickly. According to Rich Erb, general manager of show-organizer Robotics Trends Media Group, attendance has grown more than threefold in the past three years. In 2011, there were 300 attendees of the show. This year, more than 1,000 people from 22 countries are registered.

The conference takes place in Boston’s Hynes Convention Center from Wednesday, October 15 through Friday, October 17. It’s not open to the public, but if you hang around outside the convention center, you may be able to catch one of the robots following someone out.


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