If the Model T were built today would it be open sourced? Qbo wants to be the Model T of Robots

Designing an open source robot that will serve as a catalyst to accelerate robotic evolution is the aim of Francisco Paz and The Corpora

A futuristic world where Star Wars-like robots perform tasks and serve their human masters is usually more the stuff of science fiction, than science. But there have been many great minds and untold dollars spent on robotics and artificial intelligence. But while robots on the assembly line have caught on, they are hardly the cute R2D2 types we crave. Francisco Paz has spent the last 5 years of his life bringing a more "desirable" type of robot into existence. Now his open source Qbo is poised to be the Model T of robots.

Many feel that by and large the vision of what robots should look like and do have not made sufficient progress.  They are too expensive, too one dimensional and have not captured the public's imagination.

Robots have two distinct parts. One is the hardware and the other the software. Generally the software is all about artificial intelligence. According to Marvin Minsky, co-founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, “Artificial intelligence is brain-dead”. Minsky accused developers and rechearchers of making more mechatronic machines instead of creating “intelligent” machines able to carry out autonomous tasks.

On the hardware front, it is expensive, non-standard parts that put robots out of reach of most people who would like to work on them. A standard hardware platform like the Model T was to the automobile assembly line is needed.

Paz says that today robots are mostly the work product of large companies who put millions into R&D budgets. But this puts robots out of reach of most hobbyists and people who could push the envelope on both the mechanics and AI of robots.  Also these companies use their patents to make it hard for anyone else to come into the field and move the needle.

Paz says that the inspiration for Qbo can be found in Tomomasa Sato, director of the Japanese Robotics Association. Sato claims it is neccessary to develop “an open source Model-T robot in which all global standards may be applied to achieve a result as revolutionary as Ford’s Model-T was for the car industry.”

Paz and his company, The Corpra have built a robot that is based on both open source hardware and software. It runs Linux as well. The idea is that Qbo will allow the hobbyist a chance to work on a standard platform. With an open source, affordable standards based model, innovation and experimentation should be ignited at a faster pace.  Maybe we will yet see Star Wars style droids in our lifetime (as opposed to the Motorola kind of droid. But hey that does run a kind of Linux too).

Qbo already has some significant functionality:

  • Stereoscopic vision: webcam calibration (2), depth, face,  objects and colours recognition, face and object tracking, map generating (under development)
  • Speech Recognition SystemSpeech Synthesis System: it offers a general framework for building speech synthesis systems. Only available in English at the moment.
  • Thecorpora’s API: Developed to interact with the hardware components of the robot and third parties’ software.
  • WEB control panel: the robot is accessible through web explorer.
  • Internet connection through a WIFI controller placed in the head. Real-time software and firmware update.
  • Obstacles: the robot avoids crashes and falls thanks to ultrasound sensors.
  • Autocharging: auto-charge battery (testing and developing phase)  With much more promised soon. But in true open source fashion, Paz also thinks that hobbyists and others will take the base Qbo and because it is open sourced be able to build and innovate from there.

BTW, Paz readily admits that he purposely shied away from a design that was humanoid in look. Putting arms and legs would make it too expensive. Clearly a vacuum cleaner served as the role model for Qbo.  You can go to The Corpora Youtube site to see some videos of Qbo in motion. 


Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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