Imagine if every time someone wanted to develop a new piece of software, they first had to design and build a computer to run it. Not only would this greatly add to the time and expense required for software development, but it would also mean that all of us consumers would have to own multiple computers. Well, that’s what it’s like in the field of robotics. Because there is no robot-equivalent of the PC or Mac, every time someone wants a robot that can do something new, a new robot has to be built from scratch. Wouldn’t it be easier if there were one standard robotic platform, for which people just designed new hardware or software? Californian robotics company Willow Garage seems to think so, which is why they’re giving ten of their PR2 robots to deserving research organizations.

The program

The PR2 Beta Program is open to groups who plan on making use of the robot in existing or planned research projects. The groups will regularly share their findings with each other, and with the coordinators at Willow Garage. Everyone’s successes will be written into the PR2’s open-source software platform, called ROS (Robot Operating System), or built into new versions of the robot. Like the Linux operating system for computers, ROS will be available to anyone, anywhere, to use or to add to. Willow Garage hopes that the PR2 and ROS will become a common focus for the robotics community, wherein developers can learn from and build upon each others’ research, instead of working in isolation.

The hardware and software

The PR2 and ROS are spin-offs of technology developed at California’s Stanford University. The robot is approximately the size of an adult human, has two arms and multiple sensors, and is optimized for common tasks such as navigating buildings, opening doors and grasping objects. ROS provides basic planning, perception and control capabilities, along with a set of analysis, visualization and debugging tools. While just about anything
could be done with the PR2, Willow Garage is particularly hoping for a future where robots assist the elderly and disabled, assist with household chores, and perform operational activities such as warehouse work. Keep that in mind, if you send them a proposal.

How to get yours

In order to qualify for a free robot, groups should already be involved in “research that will advance the field of personal robotics”, have robotics and software development experience, be able to accommodate a PR2, and be able to release their code under an open source license. Willow Garage would also prefer groups that don’t plan on using their robot for military purposes, or that rely on military funding (so if you want to create your own version of that annoying robot from
Short Circuit, forget it). For all the details on eligibility and deadlines, pay a visit to

And just so you know, they do expect you to return the robot in no more than two years. Of course, within that time, you could have gotten your robot to build you a whole army of PR3’s.

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