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Democratizing Robot Design

A cheap new kit could make robotics easy for everyone.

Beneath the white paperboard petals of a robotic flower–which can open and close in response to changes in light, or catch a thrown ball detected by infrared sensors–lies a new standardized robotics platform called Qwerk. Developed at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Qwerk is designed so that almost anyone can use it to build his or her own custom Internet-enabled robot. It’s a platform that CMU computer scientist Illah Nourbakhsh hopes will launch an open-source robotics movement and “democratize robot design for people intimidated by current techniques and parts.”

Flower power: This robotic flower was built using Qwerk, a new robotics platform from Carnegie Mellon University. The robot’s petals can open and close in response to changes in light, and it can catch a thrown ball detected by infrared sensors.

In contrast to current kits–most of which require a prefabricated set of parts–Qwerk is, according to the CMU robotics team, the first easy-to-use, low-cost robotics controller to house, in one place, power regulators, motor controllers, and hardware and rewritable software for a Wi-Fi Internet connection and simple programming. In the flower robot, the platform sits inside the blue wooden flowerpot. The CMU team has also developed some robot recipes for easy-to-build machines–like the paperboard flower–that can be assembled in a few hours with off-the-shelf parts. Together, the recipes and platform make up the Telepresence Robotic Kit (TeRK).

Why build a robotic flower? Well, beyond opening, closing, and catching things, it can play music, read the news aloud from its Internet connection, and strike poses according to its maker’s mood. But the point is that you don’t have to build the flower. “Ultimately, we hope people will riff on the recipes, making unusual and unexpected changes that take on a life of their own,” thereby helping bring robotics into the mainstream, says Nourbakhsh.

With Qwerk and its catalogue of design recipes, the TeRK project joins the wider effort to create a greater variety of robots beyond the traditional walkers and rovers. “In the past, designers haven’t paid enough attention to creating nonmobile robots that engage users’ imaginations,” says Mitchel Resnick, director of the Lifelong Kindergarten research group at MIT’s Media Lab. Resnick’s group has developed LEGO Mindstorms and PicoCrickets, two construction kits similar in purpose to the TeRK.

“Getting people, particularly children and young adults, to see that creating can be a rewarding learning experience is a wonderful effort,” Resnick says. “I’m happy to see CMU contribute to opening new pathways.”

Qwerk was commercialized by Charmed Labs of Austin, TX, and costs $349.

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