iRobot has just launched the new Ava 500 telepresence robot which can project one’s presence to a remote site. The robot is tall enough to allow “eye-level” communications via a Cisco Telepresence EX60 video end-point mounted on the Ava 500. By using Cisco’s video technology, iRobot can serve a huge number of customers who are already familiar it. Cisco’s communication systems are compatible with a number of non-Cisco systems as well.
The iRobot Ava 500 is built for the enterprise and could be used in very large facilities for telepresence but also equipment or instruments surveillance (or for anything else, really). Upon delivery of the first robot, a human operator can drive it around to build an initial map of the place which it can use later to move around autonomously. Interestingly, the map is stored in a cloud, so additional robots do not have to be “taught” again. Instead, they simply use the existing data. The robot is quite large, weighs 150lbs, an can travel at a maximum speed of 1m/sec (basically “walking speed”) in places that comply with the American With Disabilities (ADA) requirements. Obviously stairs and elevators are not an option at this point.
In this large frame, iRobot is not only able to mount a robust telepresence system, but it has also added an array of sensors that allow the robot move safely. Lasers are used to “see” far away objects so that Ava 500 can smoothly avoid them. Three 3d imager (“depth cameras”, not unlike Kinect) can help perceive how far things are in front, on top and below the robot. This helps avoid staircases, or bumping into something that may be hanging from the ceiling. For very close proximity, there is a sonar and finally, there are pressure sensors in case the robot actually touches something.
Thanks to this sensor array, the robot can move around by itself and the operator doesn’t need to “drive” it remotely: telling it “where to go” is sufficient. Each robot is paired with a power station where it charges, but if the facility is really huge it is possible to have additional charging stations, although one of them will always be the “master” one.
Finally, the operator has some degrees of freedom when it comes to looking around. The robot can turn around, which provides “camera panning”. To look up and down, it’s possible to have the camera tilt. This particular model does not have a “zoom” function, so moving in closer is the only way to get a more detailed look. That said, it is technically possible to mount a camera that would have an optical zoom but this has not been productized as of now. As you can guess, the system is not really “cheap” (from a consumer standpoint) and iRobot actually rents them for around $2000/$2500 and that includes the maintenance.
The ultimate implementation of telepresence would be something like the “Surrogates” movie where robots live the life of their masters who stay at home. We’re not quite there yet, and that movie may even push things a bit too far, but cost aside, I think that there something inherently cool in being able to see and move around a place without being there. Do you agree?