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Start-up warms up personal robots

Silicon Valley company started by a Google veteran plans to make its robotics software open-source. Photos: Tuning up autonomous vehicles

A Silicon Valley start-up backed by an early Google employee is taking a novel approach to building a business for domestic robots and driverless vehicles: it will take its sweet time.

Willow Garage, based in Menlo Park, Calif., is developing a hardware and software development platform for personal-assistant robots, autonomous boats and unmanned cars. The privately funded company, quietly started almost a year ago by eGroups founder and veteran Google architect Scott Hassan, plans to make its robotics software open-source. That way, it hopes to draw a community of developers to build applications in these respective fields.

With no pressure to make money initially, the company will act more like a robotics think tank and will eventually devise licensing models for its technology, said CEO Steve Cousins.

"Our model is to do this as a research project, and if people chart a product, we'll spin off a company to start it," Cousins, a former IBM Research executive, said in a recent interview.

The company plans to announce Wednesday that it has donated $850,000 to Stanford University's Computer Science Lab, which is also developing open-source software for personal robots. Willow Garage is collaborating with Stanford in the field, and it hired two research students from the lab to work on its PR2, a prototype of a personal-assistant robot with standardized software. (The students built PR1 at Stanford.)

Cousins didn't identify the private investors in Willow Garage, but the company is presumably bankrolled by Hassan, whose eGroups sold to Yahoo in 2000 for $412 million. Hassan was also an early software architect of Google,'s Alexa Internet and the Stanford Digital Library.

The emergence of Willow Garage comes as commercial interest in robotics and cognitive computing is on the rise. , has proven consumer demand for automated bots to clean floors. Microsoft also joined the fray last year with its Robotics Studio software, a commercial operating system for developing robots. Like Willow Garage, Microsoft hopes to seed the industry's growth by providing standardized software to develop real or simulate robots.

Willow Garage plans to go one step further with the hardware for these robots. For example, it has developed the software for a self-driving car, but it has also outfitted a Ford Hybrid Escape with the guidance systems and sensors to test the software. With this prototype, the company hopes to develop applications for self-parking cars and auto-driving in traffic systems, Cousins said.

A look at the most impressive efforts at the RoboDevelopment Conference and Expo.

Of course, self-driving cars are the subject of the upcoming , a $2 million test of the robots navigating mock city streets. Cousins said that Willow Garage's car was too early in development to qualify for the challenge, which will be held November 3 in Victorville, Calif.

Willow Garage also plans to start testing an autonomous, solar-powered boat within the next six weeks. David Meyers, head of Willow Garage's program and a former Navy captain, said the company hopes the boat will be used as a vehicle for ocean research, such as measuring climate change or mapping the oceans, without the need to support a research staff at sea. Because it's powered by panels that draw energy from the sun, the team believes it will maintain endurance to last a year out in the ocean. Meyers said the company is still developing its artificial intelligent and collision-avoidance systems for the autonomous vessel.

"This changes the game for what's possible in ocean research," Meyers said.

Finally, the company is developing a standardized set of tools to build domestic robots. Willow Garage has the software and the prototype, PR1, and coming soon, PR2--a more than 4-foot humanoid robot with two arms and grasping hands. With this prototype, it hopes to solve basic questions of robot intelligence, as well as mechanical and electrical structure, so that others can develop on the platform, according to the team. Willow Garage also aims to release its software architecture to universities and other researchers next year.

"We want to allow software people to be able to share ideas and a common robot platform. We think the field will advance much more quickly that way," according to the personal robot team.

So far, the company has about a dozen employees, but it plans to hire at least 60 people by May 2009.

Despite trepidation about developing humanoid robots, Shankar Sastry, dean of engineering at U.C. Berkeley, said that Willow Garage plays into a general trend in robotics toward automating tasks for people. And he liked the long-term approach.

"It's nice when people put together more open-ended initiatives without having the pressure to turn out products," he said.