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Commodity PC morphs into mobile Linux robot

Aug 7, 2006 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — 5 views

A small Canadian company is taking orders for a mobile robot that runs Linux, and is based on standard, modular PC components, interfaces, and bays — sort of a PC on motorized wheels. WhiteBox Robotics says its 914 PC-Bot “does everything a PC does,” with the added capability of mobility.

(Click for larger view of WhiteBox Robotics 914)

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According to CEO Rob Richards, WhiteBox Robotics has applied for a patent on robots based on modular PC components and interfaces. He said, “We've done extensive research, and believe the patent would hold up if challenged.”

Robots have long used PC components in various capacities, as a quick look at our extensive Linux Robot Showcase will reveal. The difference appears to be that rather than being a robot with incidental computing capabilities, WhiteBox Robotics's 914 PC-Bot appears to be positioned as a standard PC with added robotic capabilities. Robotic mobility and remote controllability will enable new PC applications, the company hopes.

One early application for the technology appears to be in warehousing and inventory management applications, where the 914 can serve as a “networked, mobile sensor platform [for] RFID readers, hazmat detectors, and access management devices.” The company suggests, “Now you can move the sensor, vs. the asset.”

Other suggested applications include academic and hobbyist projects.

What's inside the case?

The 914 stands 21-inches tall, and weighs about 55 pounds (25kg). It has a two-wheel drive train with two “caster ball” wheels, each powered by a DC stepper motor. The robot is cloaked in moulded plastic body panels that are “Ninety-five percent done,” according to Richards.

Forget six-pack abs; the 914's torso unit comprises a column of four standard 5.25-inch PC drive bays in front, and another four in back. The torso is flanked by two “foldable” side bays respectively housing the power supply and system board.

The 914's motor- and sensor-control are handled by a USB-based M3M (machine management module) and I/O board, respectively. The I/O board supports eight analog inputs, eight digital ins, and digital outs. Up to two I/O board are supported.

Other sensors include a camera in the head unit, and a sensor array comprising eight IR sensors, presumably used for obstacle avoidance.

The 914 is powered by twin 12-volt lead-acid batteries, and comes with a charger.

Software side

Since the 914 is really just a standard PC trapped in a robot's body, it can run any standard PC operating system. WhiteBox Robotics supports Linux on the device, as well as Microsoft's Robotics Studio. When used with Linux, the company also appears to support the open source Player/Stage robot and sensor programming library.

According to a poll of users at the 914 Forum, 53 percent plan to use Microsoft Windows with Robotics studio, while 21 percent expect to use Linux with Player/Stage.


WhiteBox Robotics says the 914 is available now, with six- to eight-weeks lead time, priced at $5,000. Richards expects prices to fall to “PC-like levels between $1,500 and $2,000” by next year, by which time he hopes the company will be outsourcing manufacturing in batches of “thousands, not hundreds.”

Richards adds, “Our current model is over-built. It's analogous to consumer electronics… the first Trinitron was very expensive, but it was the nicest Trinitron ever made. Since then, it's been cost-reduce, cost-reduce, cost-reduce.”

So far, WhiteBox Robotics has sold 50-60 914 bots, according to Richards.

Additional details, including photos, user reports, surveys, and more, can be found at a community forum devoted to WhiteBox Computing's 914 robots.

WhiteBox Robotics is essentially “the same company” as FrontLine Robotics, a 30-person, software oriented supplier of unmanned, autonomous vehicles (UAVs) to the defense and public safety sectors.

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