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Bot Mitzvah

Ken Conley

TODAY, I AM A DROID: The PR2 production model. Below, Eric Berger and Keenan Wyrobek with its predecessor, the PR1.

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It was a rite of passage celebration like no other. In late May, Willow Garage, a robotics start-up in Menlo Park, gave a festive sendoff to 11 of its PR2 (Personal Robot 2) units destined for research labs around the world. The candidates—each just under 5 feet tall and worth about $400,000—demonstrated their readiness to contribute to society, then showed off their moves on the dance floor.

"Robots can change our lives in a big way," Willow Garage founder Scott Hassan told the event's attendees. "And these robots are capable of doing it in my lifetime." Hassan, who completed two quarters of graduate work in engineering on the Farm before decamping for Google in 1996, launched Willow Garage a decade later. His goal: to provide a common hardware and software platform to spur the development of nonmilitary robots.

The PR2 project grew out of research that originated in the lab of Stanford professor of computer science and surgery Ken Salisbury, PhD '82. As students, Eric Berger, '04, MS '05, and Keenan Wyrobek, MS '05, now co-directors of Willow Garage's personal robotics program, worked on the bot's antecedent, the PR1. "Similar to the way a personal computer has become part of our everyday lives—in our work, in our homes—we see robots having a similar future," says Wyrobek.

The units will be on loan for two years to groups at top institutions, including Stanford. Using the open-source ROS (Robot Operating System) software, developers can extend the robots' capabilities. Stanford's plans include improving the sensitivity and dexterity of the grippers, as well as teaching the bot to wave hello, shake hands and recognize and follow individuals.

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