Robots in the News (11/11/2010)

(Originally published on November 11, 2010)

A quick recap of a few recent mainstream articles concerning “robots” and robot platforms…

  • Protecting Your Home From Afar With a Robot” (New York Times, Nov 3, 2010): An informal tour of available low-cost robots and discussions with their owners, who seem to have found an inexpensive and fun way to experiment with “telepresence”, especially for surveillance of the home. Some of these robots are designed to be hacked.
  • Drones Get Ready to Fly, Unseen, Into Everyday Life” (Wall Street Journal, Nov 2, 2010): A focused look into progress on the consumer and military fronts to create small, autonomous flying drones. A quote from the article: a “goal is to develop a drone the size of a pizza box with small propellers that can watch a soldier’s back on the battlefield.”

(UK Daily Mail treatment of the same topic/article, here).

Some observations

There’s an explosion of innovation happening at the intersection of amateur aircraft building and software/hardware hacking, spurred on, I’d guess, by advances in powerful tiny electric motors (made possible by really powerful magnets), battery technology, and the availability of cheap and easy-to-integrate subsystems for controlling motors, sensors (GPS, accelerometers, gyroscopes, cameras, ultrasound), and connectivity. Throw in the availability of carbon fiber for strong, lightweight chassis.

Hobbyists seem to be genuinely pushing the envelope with cheap and capable designs integrated via powerful processing units. I challenge you to spend 5 minutes on the DIY Drones site and not be impressed with the energy and ingenuity of the community there. (For one thing, it makes it easy to impress when your projects are “self-documenting”… that is, drones with on-board video cameras).

And on the ready-to-fly/consumer front, I’m impressed with the level of technology offered. For instance, this is the list of coolness that AR.Drone brings to the table (as written on the site):

  • “A quadricopter made in carbon fiber and high resistance PA66 plastic
  • MEMS (Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems) and video processing to ensure a very intuitive piloting of a radio controlled object
  • Wi-Fi and video streaming for a modern interface with an iPhone™ or iPod touch®
  • Images processing software for augmented reality”

Of the four consumer robots that I found (list below) via the articles note above, or via other casual searches, all four are designed to be hacked. I was able to determine that three of the four are based on Linux, and my guess is that the fourth one is as well.

It’s cool that manufacturers have jumped onto hacker bandwagon so strongly. This would be a great way to teach kids about programming for the real world, especially if they’ve outgrown MindStorms.

I’m wondering whether Google’s Android operating system (a variant of Linux) will see any adoption in this space? Something’s happening on the Android phone hardware front, for sure: a number of folks are building robots using Android-based cell phones as the controllers, system integrators, or remotes (here’s an example.) Given that your average smart phone has significant CPU, memory, and sensor resources, all that’s needed to make a robot is a chassis, motors and controllers, etc. For instance, the Google Nexus One has a 1Ghz processor and 512MB of memory… the robots listed below typically sport processors running at half that clock rate.

Beyond surveillance and getting kids interested in hacking, how are these cheap robots being used? For helping people living at home who might need extra attention, for one thing, according to Hoaloha Robotics.

(Another tip of the hat to Charles, for forwarding a number of these links.)

An initial set of related links, more to come:

  • New York Times’ list of Robot articles: “News about robots, including commentary and archival articles published in The New York Times”


  • Rovio (from WowWee, ~$179US): “the groundbreaking new Wi-Fi enabled mobile webcam that lets you view and interact with its environment through streaming video and audio.” Includes API documentation, apparently for client web apps that access its built-in web server. Couldn’t easily figure out what software/hardware it’s based on. Loved their tagline: “Rovio – now you can finally be in two places at once!”
  • Spykee (from Meccano:, $329US): “WiFi spy robot”. Firmware is provided in source form. Appears to be Linux-based, with an ARM processor.
  • AR.Drone (, $299): “The flying video game”. “First quadricopter that can be controlled by an iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad.” Includes an on-board video camera. Updatable firmware. SDK available for game developers. ARM processor running a Linux OS.
  • Spy Gear Spy Video TRAKR (, $129). Can download apps from a catalog and also build apps on your own with a web-based “IDE”. ARM processor running a Linux OS (on both the robot and the remote!).


  • ( “Robodance is the ultimate software program for your WowWee Rovio”; other robots also supported.

Communities / Blogs

Bonus links: Robots and How we view them (these will be funny right up until Skynet becomes self-aware):

  • “Television’s Greatest Robots: A Video Timeline” (Gawker)
  • Baca Robo (“Stupid Robot”) Contest, Budapest, Hungary: Not in English, but fun to watch even with the sound turned down. The lab coats are a nice touch.

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