A new research robot was unveiled today by Unbounded Robotics that has a good chance of infiltrating robotics labs around the world. Unbounded Robotics' founding members hail from Willow Garage, where they helped to develop the PR2 (a robot famous for performing everyday tasks like folding laundry). The problem with the PR2 was its hefty price tag; at US$400,000, it was simply out of reach of most university labs. Unbounded Robotics' UBR-1 is essentially a PR2 "lite", and at $35,000 it won't break the bank.

The UBR-1 is what the industry calls a mobile manipulator – a robot with an arm and gripper for interacting with objects, that moves around on wheels. It's designed to be able to do all sorts of tasks we take for granted, like opening doors and moving things from here to there. With its seven degrees of freedom, the arm is flexible enough to reach objects laying on the floor to pick them up and place them on a counter. And like Toyota's Human Support Robot, it has a telescopic trunk for added height when it needs it.

It sees the world around it with a Primesense 3D sensor in its head, similar to the technology found in the Microsoft Kinect. A laser scanner mounted to the front of its wheel base helps it to navigate by mapping its surroundings and, rather importantly, finding floor-level obstacles. USB ports located near its head allow for some degree of sensor customization if needed, but it comes with the ability to navigate right of the box.

The UBR-1's gripper may be simple, but it allows the robot to pick up all sorts of things (Photo: Eric Gulbransen)

The UBR-1's batteries last up to five hours before needing to be recharged, or double that if it's mostly idling. It's smart enough to return to a charging dock (sold separately) when it gets low on juice. Weighing in at 73 kg (160 lb) with a 49.5-cm (19.5-in) footprint, it's significantly thinner and lighter than the PR2, allowing it to negotiate tighter spaces.

In comparison, the PR2 has many more sensors and has two arms rather than just one, but given the price difference I suspect the PR2 isn't long for this world. Even its name, the UBR-1, suggests that newer models will come along over the next few years that could very well add these features back in. It's a move that, like Rethink Robotics' industrial robot Baxter, could radically accelerate the adoption of robotics technology.

In just a few short years, Willow Garage has done an impeccable job of kickstarting the mobile robot revolution. It created a robust platform in the PR2, which it then loaned to some of the most prestigious universities in the world. It also created the open source Robot Operating System, and fostered a community that shares its work to accelerate development.

All of that may soon be a footnote, if Unbounded Robotics' bargain-priced robot is all it's cracked up to be. Wide adoption seems likely, so it should be interesting to see what the UBR-1 gets up to over the next few years.

You can see the UBR-1 in action in the video below.

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