From cutting edge models like the autonomous iRobot Ava 500 which sells in the $70K ballpark along with the $35,000 MetraLabs Scitos, to the mid-priced models like the $4,950 + $574 per month Suitable Technologies’ Beam (or
$1,495 Beams+), $9,700 Anybots, and $2,500 Double
Telepresence, telepresence robots are an expensive breed.
Or, as Parmy Olson in her July 2013 Forbes article (“Rise of
the Telepresence Robots”) said, “Telepresence robots could
change the way your office works — if you don’t mind a
$20,000 price tag.”
Okay, let’s lower the price, right?
Sub-$500 telepresence robots are popping up on many
of the popular crowd-sourced funding websites. From the
yet-to-ship Kickstarter darlings Botiful ($200) and the iPhone
toting Helios ($120) to the desk-riding Indiegogo Kubi
($249), these startup developers are trying to buck the high
cost of telepresence robots. Although successfully funded,
most of the backers for these robots are still waiting for the
delivery of their pledge premium bots.
Another Kickstarter alum — but this one failed to obtain
funding ($6,023 pledged for a $31,000 goal) — is the
long-necked Telemba Basic ($170). Designed more like a kit,
Telemba was going to convert an iRobot Roomba and
Android tablet into a telepresence robot. The Telemba
developers chose this combination of commercial products
“because lots of people have outdated Roombas and
tablets they don’t use anymore.” Ouch! That negative
implied obsolescence attitude might have actually
squelched a lot of backers from ponying up funding
for the project.
If you’d rather not wait for the delivery
of one of these promised premiums and
you’re an Apple iPhone owner, then the
iPhone-dependent commercial Romo ($129)
is an option. Romo is a small tractor-driven
transport base that plugs into your iPhone’s
Lightning connector (there is an older 30-pin
connector Romo model for accommodating
iPhone 4S) and enables a telepresence
capability via the Romo Control app. This app
— when dual installed (i.e., one app must be
installed on Romo’s iPhone and another app
must be installed on the remote user’s
iPhone) — allows you to use Romo as a
diminutive telepresence robot.
Both the Romo iPhone and the remote
iPhone (or an iPad/iPod model) must be on, and they need
to have an active Internet connection. Once two-way
communication has been established, the Romo iPhone is
ready to receive the remote iPhone’s
video/voice/commands. A unique six-digit “Romo” number
is dialed by the remote user and a Skype-like connection is
established, along with the extra feature of being able to
“drive” the Romo iPhone from a remote location.
Romo is great as an introduction to telepresence but
rather limited in the sophistication of its robot portion. For
example, autonomous robot sensor capability is nil — the
prevention of running into walls or falling off a table is
controlled via the remote “driver.” So, if your requirements
for a telepresence robot are satisfied by a horse-and-driver
setup, then Romo is tough to beat. On the other hand, if
you need a more robust robot base — one that is capable
of exercising limited sensor-driven obstacle avoidance while
driving your virtual “head” around an office — then you’re
going to need a bigger brain.
A Proof of Concept
So, how about building your own telepresence robot?
How hard can it really be? As a proof of concept, the
venerable Raspberry Pi (RPi) was selected as the brains for a
DIY telepresence robot project. As most reader’s know,
however, everybody’s fave credit card-sized embedded
microcontroller solution is woefully underpowered for
directly driving a motorized robot chassis. Luckily, the RPi
has two options for painlessly interfacing with a robot:
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When You Can't Be There, Let Your Telepresence Be There Instead
A stock iRobot Create with a command module plugged into the cargo bay connector DB- 25.