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Anybots: Building your robot army

Glaskowsky reports from a meeting of the Homebrew Robotics Society at the headquarters of Anybots, makers of teleoperated humanoid robots.

You've probably seen or heard of the industrial robots that build cars, and the various humanoid robots like Honda's Asimo. Most of these are made in Japan. But let's face it, there's only so much these can do. An industrial robot is bolted down, and only knows one or two simple tasks. Asimo is small and weak, and famously collapsed once while trying to climb stairs.

Monty, a wheeled robot from Anybots.
Monty, a wheeled robot from Anybots. Anybots, Inc.

As we know from sci-fi movies, real robots are the size of a man and can do things--dangerous things. Real robots are suitable for building robot armies. For that, we have to look to America. Companies in the United States have given us vacuum-cleaner robots, bomb-disposal robots and even robot military aircraft. Where better to look for humanoid killer robots?

And I found some on Wednesday night at the headquarters of Anybots, a six-year-old angel-funded Silicon Valley start-up company of just four employees.

Of course, Anybots doesn't talk about robot armies. Its robots can't kill anyone, not even by falling on them--they're not heavy enough for that. In fact, the company's favorite publicity photo shows one of its robots loading a dishwasher. But I can tell they're really thinking about robot armies. I've seen this bad sci-fi movies, anyway, but now I think someone's trying it in real life.

The mad scientists of Anybots, I believe, are just lulling us into a false sense of complacency with these pleasant domestic demonstrations.

We learned on Wednesday that Anybots is planning to make its fortune from these peaceful applications. In fact, the Anybots employees we met seemed to be good people, sincerely devoted to this idea that robots can free mankind of dishwasher-loading and similar drudgery. If any of them was an evil genius, he (or she) escaped my detection. Well, maybe I'm just paranoid. As you may have heard, that's a useful survival trait here in Silicon Valley...

Anybots was hosting a special monthly meeting of the Homebrew Robotics Club, which I've mentioned here previously. We got a presentation by Anybots founder and CEO Trevor Blackwell, who summarized the company's vision quite efficiently: "Make robots that do what people can do."

Initially, Anybots is developing teleoperated robots--that is, robots operated by a person some distance away. Autonomous robots, which operate independently, are further in the future. The major challenges of humanoid robot design are the same for both cases: balancing, moving, recognizing objects, aiming rifles and conquering the world. (That's just me talking; Blackwell said nothing about military combat. Clever man.)

We also got to see a couple of Anybots' robots. Monty is the one pictured here and on the main page of the Anybots Web site. It has a two-wheeled balancing base; the balancing function is autonomous, so the operator doesn't have to worry about it. Unlike Honda's squat Asimo, Monty is 5'7" tall, so it has the height and reach of a (small) man. On the other hand, Asimo is self-powered, whereas Monty must be connected to an external source of compressed air and electrical power.

According to Blackwell, Monty can basically go anywhere a wheelchair can go. It's powered by a combination of electric and pneumatic actuators, which has proven to be a challenging design decision. As Blackwell said, few other companies use pneumatics for robots, and Anybots is learning why...

The other robot is Dexter, which is a few inches taller and walks on its own two legs; it's also permanently tethered to its air and power supplies. It even wears human shoes, and walks using an algorithm that models the way humans walk. (However, the poor thing has no arms, and when we saw him, he didn't even have his head on!) Dexter is still learning to walk, but Anybots expects it will eventually be able to run, cross rough terrain, and generally transport itself anywhere a human could go.

Anybots is a sponsor of the RoboDevelopment Conference and Exposition, coming to the San Jose McEnery Convention Center October 25-26, so you can go there to learn more about Anybots' work and other robot-related technology.

It might be a good idea to go check out the show just so you can figure out which side you want to be on in the inevitable war between man and robot...