Robots for the rest of us

Terk offers do-it-yourself robot recipes using off-the-shelf parts, onboard Linux controller. Photos: DIY robots from recipes

Carnegie Mellon University unveiled a new project Thursday designed to help people make robots from parts found at the local hardware store.

The Telepresence Robot Kit, dubbed Terk, was developed by Illah Nourbakhsh, an associate professor of robotics, and his team at the Community Robotics, Education and Technology Empowerment Lab at CMU. The project got financial help from Google, Microsoft and Intel.

"Everything is open source and public domain," Nourbakhsh said. "There is no incentive to make money here. None of the corporations that funded are looking to license this. These companies gave us gift money--even better than grant money because there's no strings--to help us try and come up with ways to get people to be more creative with tech and more tech-literate."

Instead of a complete kit, the Terk offers DIY "robot recipes," recommending off-the-shelf parts as ingredients, with one exception. To make it easy for laypeople to create and control robots, Terk recipes recommend the Qwerk, a Linux computer with robot-controlling software that resides on the robot. It was developed in conjunction with CMU by Charmed Labs, a company based out of Austin, Texas, and costs $350.

The Qwerk, in addition to controlling the motors and other devices connected to the robot, allows the bot to connect wirelessly to the Internet and access information. Having a computer onboard the robot allowed the team to offer recipes for more sophisticated robots.

"We decided that the current robots kids are using in classrooms and universities aren't good enough. We need to empower the public to be inventive with robotics in general," Nourbakhsh said.

A wireless Internet connection enables people to control their robot remotely from any computer, and retrieve any collected images and videos. Terk robots can be programmed to respond to RSS feeds or read them out loud.

Including the $350 Qwerk computer, the estimated cost for Terk robots ranges from about $550 to $725, but that includes many tools, like wrenches and screwdrivers, that the average American probably already has kicking around the basement.

So far, Terk robot recipes include the Qwerkbot, a little three-wheeled robot that takes photos of its surroundings, and the Terk Flower robot, which uses its petals to play catch. In the pipeline are plans for a Terk robot made from an iRobot Roomba, a tall robot and a kinetic robot with flags that respond to different RSS feeds.

In trials with middle-school students, Nourbakhsh said the Terk has already increased diversity among robot enthusiasts.

More girls joined the classes and, according to Nourbakhsh, they turned out to be more talented programmers than the boys, dispelling an age-old stereotype. Kids taking robotics classes where Terk is used now include the artists, environmentalists and literati instead of just the techies, Nourbakhsh said. That's exactly the effect Nourbakhsh says his group hoped to achieve.

Said Nourbakhsh, "The people designing robots have been the geeks who invented robots (and I can say that; I'm one of them) and they are the worst people to engage others and creatively figure out what can be done with them."

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