Fresh off winning the RoboBusiness Pitchfire competition for startups, Unbounded Robotics’ Melonee Wise was bullish on the future of her less-than-one-year-old company and its open-source UBR-1 robot.
“Our Pitchfire win was a validation that we have a good business plan,” said Wise, CEO and co-founder of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Unbounded, which spun out of Willow Garage just this past January and unveiled its relatively low-priced one-armed mobile robot at RoboBusiness 2013 in late October.
The versatile, UBR-1 service robot is intentionally designed to be adaptable for any number of routine, repetitious tasks, such as shelf stocking and other material management jobs, while working safely around humans.
“I see the UBR-1 as the Model T of robots. It really is the first workhorse robot,” said Wise.
It has the functionality of Willow Garage’s PR2, featuring high-level mobility, dexterity, manipulation, and navigation. But while the PR2 goes for $400,000, the UBR-1 carries a considerably lower price tag of $35,000.
Unbounded is able to keep the cost of the UBR-1 low because of improving sensor technology — it uses fewer sensors and different battery technology, among other innovations.
“We really kept an eye on the production cost of the robot, engineering it to reduce its cost,” said Wise.
The UBR-1 has a single, seven-jointed arm with hand that can grasp up to 3.3 lb. It can vary in height from 38 to 52 in., allowing it to pick items from the floor and place on a shelf.
The service robot has a continuous run time of three to five hours on a single charge and an idle run of over 10 hours. ROS-ready, it can also run high-level applications like Navigation and MoveIt right out of the box without playing with configuration files.
The robot’s head moves side to side and up and down, using a PrimeSense 3D sensor to see. Its base has a 180-degree navigational view from a 2D laser scanner and can navigate any ADA-compliant building.
An innovator with strong roots
Unbounded’s connection to Willow Garage is strong, as it is one of numerous for-profit and non-profit companies that have spun out of the latter, a privately-funded entity launched by Scott Hassan of Google fame.
All four founders of Unbounded are Willow Garage alumni, with Wise having been Willow Garage’s second employee, where she was manager of robot development, heading a team of engineers developing next-generation robot hardware.
Wise wrote the first real-time controllers for the PR2 and was part of small teams that wrote several high level applications for the robot.
She also was a core team member of the open-source Robot Operating System (ROS), responsible for maintaining and supporting the core drivers, community tools and ROS tutorials.
Wise’s passion for robots is such that she even maintains a website called “My Robot Life” (www.meloneewise.com) that details her work with robots.
“As a kid, I always had an interest in building things and liked things that were science- and technology-related. When I was 10 years old, my Dad bought me one of those in-line robot building kits,” Wise said. “For the first time, I became interested in robotics.”
In her senior year in high school, Wise said her physics teacher made her realize she wanted to be an engineer. She went on to receive her MS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Unbounded Robotics’ intended impact
Unbounded will soon begin taking orders for the UBR-1, with an eye toward releasing it in July 2014. “We don’t want to take orders prematurely,” she said.
By using a uniform standard platform, Unbounded hopes that the UBR-1 will provide a “great research platform” for a wide range of users, including individuals, colleges and universities, and perhaps even high schools.
The UBR-1 is not pre-programmed, but designed to let the user develop his or her own applications.
“We hope to push the robotics revolution ahead by democratizing the robot. Now you either have to build your own robot or buy a high-end robot,” Wise said. “We want to enable everyone to be able to create applications. It is a little like the idea behind the iPhone without any third-party apps. You won’t have to be a roboticist to have your own unique robot.”